Larry Householder aptly described the current school funding formula as a “disaster.” The House speaker did so during a session with reporters last week. They wanted to know his thinking about the new formula proposed by state Reps. Robert Cupp and John Patterson, along with a team of school officials, after more than a year of hard work. The speaker rightly expressed concern about insufficient funding for poor school districts, in rural and urban areas.
Cupp, a Lima Republican, and Patterson, a Jefferson Democrat, have delivered a vastly improved formula. It is much simpler, more straightforward and less prone to the equivalent of formula duct tape. Yet it is flawed, and not just in a nothing-is-perfect way.
The state’s leading priority in primary and secondary education involves closing the achievement gap, at-risk students in disadvantaged districts consistently scoring as much as 30 percentage points below their peers. A better formula would drive new resources to help those students lift their academic performance. Unfortunately, the Cupp-Patterson formula falls short against this measure, something they have acknowledged in recent days and now are seeking to repair.
Revealing numbers have emerged from those casting a critical eye. For instance, the six largest urban districts receive 4.9 percent of the new money while the wealthiest quintile gets 17.5 percent. Academic performance tracks household wealth. Thus, wealthier districts score 100 or above on the state Performance Index. The poorest districts tend to fall below 70. Yet the top performers receive an average per-pupil increase of $390, compared to $302 for the lowest performers.
Seventy-one districts would get no additional funding in the next fiscal year. Those districts are 42 percent minority and 68 percent economically disadvantaged. The two districts now in academic distress, Youngstown and Lorain, would get no new funding. The same goes for Dayton, on the verge of falling into the category.
Eight of the largest urban districts receive no new money. They are 72 percent minority and 99 percent economically disadvantaged.
This isn’t to discount what Cupp, Patterson and the others have achieved. They looked at the “disaster,” stuck their necks out and came up with something considerably better. Neither is the point to cast blame somehow on wealthy and high performing districts, the percentage increases building on a low base of state funding. They also are part of a school system in which the state still does not contribute at the level it should, its funding the past decade up 5 percent in real dollars, or less than 1 percent annually.
Cupp and Patterson explain the lack of funding in their formula for many poor districts as reflecting enrollment declines, plus increases in tangible personal property, due to such things as new pipelines and natural gas fired power plants, making some districts appear wealthier on paper. Even the end of “gap aid,” one of the many Band-Aids applied to get through another biennium, has been cited.
Again, the two lawmakers get the need for repairs. What would make for a fix? John Kasich once talked about a formula that better “sees” poverty. He didn’t deliver, or even come close as the formula got worse on this watch. Yet the concept is right. Poverty is toxic to education.
A district such as Akron or one in Perry County where the DeRolph lawsuit originated needs resources to support proven approaches or expanded curriculum to elevate learning and opportunity. Many of these districts already tax themselves at a level above the state average based on capacity, contrary to many wealthy districts. Cupp and Patterson have opened the door to getting right something indispensable to the state. Ohio now needs this formula to see poverty better.