Richard Ross, Ohio’s superintendent of schools, once described school-funding debates in Ohio as the education version of Groundhog Day: Every two years, there is a big to-do about how we pay for public education and then we go to sleep without solving anything, he wrote. A former superintendent of a suburban district, Ross understands better than most lawmakers the uncertainties local school officials confront, badgered, on the one hand, to be frugal and innovative, yet stuck with a funding structure that everyone acknowledges is deficient.
The Senate has unveiled its budget proposals for education, which differ in significant respects from both Gov. John Kasich’s budget and the House’s version. As lawmakers prepare to reconcile the varied proposals, the question is whether this iteration of Groundhog Day will turn out to be different regarding the persistent funding flaws .
Take the wide variation in property values, which ensures that most districts need high millage levies or frequent trips to the ballot to raise a bare minimum in operating funds. The proposals to remedy this flaw have only generated skepticism so far. Kasich’s method of “equalizing” state aid based on property values offered most districts, including some of the poorest rural districts, little or no relief. The House wisely abandoned it, preferring a variation of the “building blocks” model of funding key components of education. But the House budget reverted to past behavior. It fudged. Rather than fully funding the formula, it imposed a 6 percent cap, lowering by more than $1 billion the state’s funding obligation.
For its part, the Senate’s budget bill would add more than $700 million to current basic aid levels, an increase of 11 percent, the largest increases going to districts with little or no growth in property values. But even as Senate leaders tout the generosity of the increases, their version also includes funding caps — 6.5 percent in 2014 and 10.5 percent. This would suggest a gap still exists between the true funding needs of the Ohio school system and what the Statehouse is prepared to pay for.