Derran Wimer asked the audience to think about equity. The executive director of the Summit Education Initiative imagined two boys, each age 5 and headed to kindergarten.

One carries in his backpack the many books and other enriching experiences that have prepared him to succeed. The other finds his backpack full of rocks. Each rock represents an adverse experience during childhood, from parents with drug addictions to episodes of violence and an absence of stable housing. Wimer asked rhetorically: Which child is more likely to prove proficient in third grade, eighth grade and high school?

That was the gist of his message as a panelist at the Impact Ohio conference at Quaker Station in downtown Akron last week. Research backs him up, with some children at age 5 as far as two years behind their better-off peers. Consider the results from the state’s proficiency tests. On almost every exam at every grade level disadvantaged students land roughly 30 points behind.

This is the equity challenge in school funding, or how to deploy resources most effectively to close that achievement gap. This is more than a policy exercise. Fail to make enough progress, and cities such as Akron will face even tougher going. So will poor rural areas and the state as a whole.

Wimer and his fellow panelists stressed the value of early education. At the Statehouse, Reps. Robert Cupp, a Lima Republican, and John Patterson, a Jefferson Democrat, along with a group of school officials and other advisers, have been attempting to repair the broken school funding formula. To their credit, they have made true advances, the formula more rational, clear, transparent and functional.

The formula would be far less reliant on the distorting patchwork of “caps” and “guarantees.” Today, 85 percent of school districts fall into these categories. The proposed formula would take the share to around 15 percent. Yet such improvements are not enough in view of how the Cupp-Patterson team has struggled with equity.

Larry Householder has expressed for at least two weeks his doubts about the new formula becoming part of the two-year state budget, due at the end of June. He has talked about it needing “a lot of work.” He has cited “very big concerns.” He told the Gongwer News Service: “I don’t see enough of a difference on the equity side.”

Cupp and Patterson acknowledge they haven’t closed the loop on equity. They want a task force to keep working on driving adequate resources to disadvantaged districts. Research shows that educating at-risk students requires 130 percent of per-pupil spending. The state currently puts up around 110 percent. Cupp-Patterson gets to 118 percent.

Meanwhile, the way the money would flow has many scratching their heads. As Howard Fleeter of the Ohio Education Policy Institute has noted, districts such as Youngstown, Lorain, Dayton, Toledo and Cleveland would receive no increase in funding for the biennium. Akron, Canton and Cincinnati would get new money, though below the state average per-pupil increase. Yet these school systems, along with similarly affected poor rural districts, are among those most in need of additional resources.

At the same time, many wealthy suburban districts would gain sharp increases in funding. Again, those increases build on a small base, and may reflect big enrollment growth. What puzzles is seeing high-poverty districts shut out of new money while a wealthy New Albany, near Columbus, would get an additional $1,620 per pupil the next two years.

Is that an appropriate allocation in view of the achievement gap?

It helps to consider another perspective on equity. The state has a measure for “tax effort,” or the local tax support for schools in view of the income capacity of district residents. The state sets the average tax effort at 1. East Cleveland would receive no new funding. It has a tax effort of 2.12, residents reaching deep for schools. Akron stands at 1.56; Canton, 1.3; Cleveland, 1.1; Youngstown, 1.35; and Lorain, 1.24.

What is the tax effort of wealthy suburban districts? It typically ranges from 0.3 to 0.6. So the Cupp-Patterson formula has the initial impact of shorting those districts where residents already are doing more than their part. That hardly seems equitable. It highlights why the proposal, for all the improvements, still needs work.

 

Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at mdouglas@thebeaconjournal.com.