the Beacon Journal editorial board
Tour the Akron Public Schools, and you will see one of the clear benefits of the Ohio Supreme Court ruling 20 years ago. A 4-3 majority found the state’s formula for funding public schools did not meet the constitutional test of providing a “thorough and efficient” system of education. The court focused, at some length, on the deplorable conditions of many school buildings, roofs leaking, reliable electricity at risk, classrooms cramped and cold.
Today, Akron and other districts across the state feature many new school buildings, the state having routed roughly $11 billion in matching funds to the task. To be sure, elected leaders like to build things. Yet the construction was needed, and lawmakers and governors have achieved more. Notably, the state does a better job of deploying resources to poverty-afflicted districts.
George Voinovich, the governor at the time of the court ruling, grumbled at first. Then, the state stepped up for a time its investment in the classroom. Voinovich even pushed a proposed sales tax increase for schools. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea.
Which gets to what remains undone, those at the Statehouse failing to comply with multiple court rulings ordering systemic changes to ensure adequacy and equity in funding public schools. The current debate over the proposed two-year state budget of Gov. John Kasich reveals much of what hasn’t been achieved. The conspicuous failing is the absence of almost any method for determining what it actually takes to educate a student, let alone make the corresponding resources available.
The state has continued the practice of “residual budgeting,” something the court sharply criticized. State Rep. Robert Cupp got to the gist when he responded during a recent subcommittee hearing to concerns about school funding increases failing (again) to keep pace with inflation: “We hear their problem and we understand it. There’s not hardly any extra money this year and we’re going to do the best we can with what we have.”
In other words, public education receives what remains amid the clash of priorities, not what is required to provide an adequate education. That has translated over the years into poor rural districts offering far fewer advanced courses than wealthier suburban schools. It has meant that all in all, the most advantaged students receive more funding in the classroom than the most disadvantaged.
If such shortcomings highlight the lack of progress against the measure of “thorough,” there is trouble with “efficient,” too. The funding formula involves a set of “caps” and “guarantees,” lawmakers fiddling with the formula and distorting outcomes. Under the governor’s budget plan, the number of districts on the “guarantee” jumps from the current 133 to 321 in 2019, or more than half of the total.
The formula also pays too little attention to the capacity of districts to raise local money, often leading, unfortunately, to lower- and moderate-income districts carrying a heavier burden.
Any school funding formula in a state as varied as Ohio will be complex. It will contain imperfections, larger and smaller. What disappoints two decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision is that the state has yet to calculate what is necessary to serve all Ohio schoolchildren, and there appears little interest in doing so.
Thus, for all the new buildings and small advances, these have been lost years, almost a generation, when the state should have been doing more to navigate successfully in a new economy, elevating our collective education to enhance the quality of lives.