On Thursday, John Kasich plans to unveil his proposal for revamping the way the state pays for public schools. He will be the fourth governor to take a stab at the problem since the Ohio Supreme Court found the funding formula in violation of the state constitution. What Doug Livingston, the Beacon Journal education writer, reminded over the weekend, is that the governor and lawmakers offered a prologue in June, when they enacted a “third-grade reading guarantee.”
Hard to find anyone at the Statehouse who doesn’t like the idea, the research long reinforcing the value of reading proficiency in the third grade. If a boy or girl falls behind at that point, the prospects for success in school drop sharply. What was evident as lawmakers noodled the requirement last year was the inattention to the cost.
They included $13 million almost as an afterthought. The sum did not reflect an evaluation of the overall expense of implementing and fulfilling the guarantee. The neglect was galling, in view of the accountability demanded of school districts, starting with financial forecasts covering five years. It was more so given the governor and many state lawmakers stressing that districts are not careful enough with their money.
At the time, reminders surfaced about the state having tried a fourth-grade reading guarantee in the late 1990s, the concept abandoned after a handful of years because of the cost. The governor and others have reassured: This time will be different. Unfortunately, in one way, the difference is not flattering. Back then, the Legislative Service Commission performed a cost estimate.
Thankfully, Doug Livingston filled the gap with his report. A Beacon Journal analysis found that compliance across the state with the third-grade guarantee could cost as much as $209.6 million, as districts, among things, test students and develop plans for those who are not proficient. The amount doesn’t cover an additional $123 million to hold struggling children back for a year.
Perhaps the burden of the cost will change with the governor’s makeover of school funding. As things stand, local taxpayers appear on the hook for roughly half of the tab.
This equivalent of an unfunded mandate would come after the state has reduced spending on public schools by nearly $1.6 billion statewide in the current two-year budget. Many districts are straining to cover costs, enlarging class sizes, narrowing or eliminating course offerings and other programs. Too many schools find themselves in a familiar position, faced with relying more heavily on local tax dollars. That financial reality runs counter to the ruling of the high court that stressed the failure to meet the “thorough and efficient” standard set in the state constitution.
No question, Ohio would be lifted through a third-grade reading guarantee. Too bad the worthy goal has not been matched with a concrete, coherent and honest plan for getting there.
As originally published, this editorial erred in describing the impact of the projected $209.6 million in costs due to the third-grade reading guarantee. The above version reflects the correction.