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Published in Print: January 31, 2001, as Ohio Leaders Unveil Competing Finance Plans

Ohio Leaders Unveil Competing Finance Plans

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Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and his fellow Republicans in the legislature made education their first order of business last week, kicking off the 2001 legislative session with two competing plans to mend a school funding system twice declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court.

Gov. Taft weighed in with his proposal during his Jan. 24 State of the State Address, asking lawmakers to increase state foundation aid to school districts by a total of almost 28 percent by fiscal 2006. Republican leaders in the Senate came forth with a separate proposal the following day, suggesting a larger, short-term increase in per-pupil aid, along with the establishment of a separate supplemental funding stream for low-wealth districts.

"Let there be no doubt, our plan will provide a more-than-adequate education for every child in Ohio and will reduce reliance on property taxes," the governor told lawmakers in his annual address.

In its second ruling against the state in three years, last May the state supreme court gave lawmakers one year to reform the school finance system, including reducing its heavy dependence on local property taxes as a revenue source. ("Ohio High Court Again Overturns Finance System," May 17, 2000.)

But some education officials and Democratic lawmakers contend that neither of the plans made public last week contains the types of changes needed to meet the state supreme court's standard for a "thorough and efficient" education, as guaranteed by the state constitution.

"In terms of the complete, systematic overhaul that the court ordered, we're not encouraged," said William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding, which represents more than 500 school districts in the ongoing case known as DeRolph v. State of Ohio. "Instead of an engine overhaul, we have an oil change."

Formula Called Flawed

Gov. Taft introduced his proposal as part of a broader school improvement plan that includes many of the recommendations laid out last month by the Governor's Commission on Student Success, a 33-member panel appointed last spring.

Following his speech to lawmakers, the governor unveiled his "Building Blocks for Student Success" package, which includes support for new state achievement tests aligned with revised academic standards, more money to provide all-day kindergarten for interested districts, increased aid for early-childhood programs, and increased support for standards-based professional development. The governor is expected to release a more specific budget proposal next week. ("Ohio Eyes Sweeping Testing And Accountability Changes," Jan. 10, 2001.)

Senate Republicans also endorsed the commission's recommendations for a new standards-aligned testing system in a second bill they introduced alongside their education finance proposal.

Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said he welcomed the inclusion of the student-success commission's recommendations in both pieces of legislation.

"Getting the educational standards and assessments right is just as important as fixing the funding problems," Mr. Mooney said.

Still, Mr. Mooney said he was disappointed that no one offered the type of bold changes needed to declare victory in a school funding battle that has plagued the state for almost a decade. He predicted that neither funding proposal would pass muster with the state supreme court when it reviews the state's compliance with its ruling.

"It really is just more of the same," Mr. Mooney added. "They commit more money, but pump it through the same broken formula."

But Sen. Robert A. Gardner, the chairman of the Senate's education committee and a co-sponsor of the Senate finance plan, said that by adding significantly more money to the foundation formula and including additional state support for transportation and special education, both the governor's and the Senate's proposals address the court's requirement for a reduced reliance on property taxes.

"Districts don't have to go back to the voters and say we need X number of dollars for buses or special education," Mr. Gardner said.

Time Frames Vary

Some observers did note important differences between the Senate and gubernatorial plans.

The governor's plan would phase in increases in state per-pupil funding—currently set at $4,294—over five years, lifting the foundation amount from $4,490 in fiscal 2002, to $5,484 in fiscal 2006. The levels would depend on a formula that averaged expenditures in 44 high- achieving districts in the state; those districts would be identified through such factors as teacher-student ratios and teacher experience, as well as student scores on state tests.

The Senate plan would also raise per-pupil spending, but over a shorter time frame, proposing an increase from $4,566 in fiscal 2002 to $4,694 in fiscal 2003. It would likewise base the per-pupil amount on a formula tied to average expenditures in high-performing school districts, but would select those districts strictly on student test scores. Factors such as teacher quality and class size would be implicit considerations, however, Sen. Gardner argued. "If we have an effective district, then they must have good and effective teachers," he said.

Rep. Bryan Flannery, a Democrat who serves on the House education committee, characterized the Senate proposal as "more thoughtful" than the governor's proposal. In addition to increasing basic state foundation aid, the Senate plan would create a separate aid stream that would give low-wealth districts access to additional money for "educational enhancements" that they could not pay for with the foundation amount alone.

"It's a common trust fund districts can access rather than going to local voters for more money," Mr. Flannery said. "The idea is that districts can define what they're using the enhancement dollars for, and what results they can produce."

But Mr. Phillis of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding said that the proposed educational-enhancement aid amounted to a "gimmick."

"It just doesn't seem to be good public policy to establish a funding level they consider to be appropriate and then spend additional money to make it more appropriate," Mr. Phillis said. "What they need to do is to simply and accurately determine the cost of the resources necessary to give kids the opportunities they are entitled to under the constitution, and just be done with it."

Vol. 20, Issue 20, Pages 16,19

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