Ohio Lawmakers Differ On Funding Mechanism
Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and state legislative leaders say they agree that a plan to give schools an additional $1.4 billion over two years is what's needed to mend a flawed education finance system—but they haven't agreed on how to pay for it.
After meeting for seven hours April 11, the governor, Speaker of the House Larry Householder, and Senate President Richard H. Finan indicated that they had made progress on a proposal. The plan would provide a 12 percent increase in guaranteed per-pupil spending, from $4,294 this year to $4,814 in fiscal 2002. An additional $300 million would be allocated over two years to reduce spending disparities between low-income districts and their wealthier counterparts. But final legislative language still eluded the three Republican leaders.
In contrast, a proposal to revise the state's standards and accountability system was proving less contentious. The Ohio Senate late last month approved a bill that would clarify the state's academic standards. Moreover, it would replace the existing state proficiency tests with a series of subject-related achievement tests, culminating with a 10th grade exam students would have to pass to graduate. The measure is currently being considered by the House education committee.
Back to Court?
On the funding front, lawmakers are working to satisfy the state supreme court, which ruled last May that the state's initial efforts to change the school financing system—first ruled unconstitutional in 1997—failed to pass muster. A new plan must be signed into law by June 15 to meet the court-imposed deadline. ("Ohio High Court Again Overturns Finance System," May 17, 2000.)
But faced with the prospect of sharply declining tax revenues because of a slowing state economy, state leaders said last week that they were still looking for ways to pay for the increase in school aid and balance the budget. The lawmakers said they were also considering postponing the implementation of tax credits scheduled to go into effect this year, and tapping some of the state's $1 billion rainy-day fund. "The goal is to get something worked out as soon as possible," said Jennifer Detwiler, a spokeswoman for Mr. Householder. "It's essentially how they're going to fund it that's an issue at this point."
William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding—which filed the original lawsuit, known as DeRolph v. State of Ohio, in 1991—contended that while the $1.4 billion plan would provide new money for schools, it would not meet the supreme court's requirement for a "thorough and efficient" school finance system. The proposal would not actively reduce districts' reliance on property taxes for funds, he maintained, and would not provide enough money for already "severely underfunded" special education programs.
In addition, Mr. Phillis charged that lawmakers had manipulated the data on per-pupil spending levels until they came out with a number that suited them, rather than first determining the cost of an adequate education. The formula is tied to the average per-pupil spending levels in high- achieving districts.
"Needless to say, we'll be back in court," Mr. Phillis said. "It's going to be easy to show that this system is still grossly unconstitutional."
The coalition had supported an earlier plan floated by Mr. Householder that would have increased spending on schools by a whopping $3.2 billion over the next two years, and would likely have agreed to settle the case had that plan gone forward. But the sources identified to pay for the plan— including the addition of slot machines at racetracks and budget cuts—were rejected by other Republicans.
Meanwhile, under a plan approved 29-3 by the Senate last month, the state would abandon its controversial 4th grade reading-guarantee program, scheduled for implementation next spring. The so-called guarantee says students must meet proficiency requirements on state reading tests to advance to the 5th grade.
The legislation would instead mandate that students who fail the test receive intervention services. In addition, students would be tested on different subjects every year in grades 3-5 and 7-8, while 10th graders would take a graduation test. For example, the state would administer reading tests to 3rd grade students, mathematics and writing tests to 4th graders, and science and citizenship tests to 5th grade students, rather than continuing the current practice of 4th graders sitting for a weeklong spate of tests in multiple subject areas. Diagnostic tests in different subjects would be used in the off- years to fill in the data gaps.
"This spreads out the tests so that teachers can concentrate on different knowledge bases," said Sen. Robert A. Gardner, the Republican who sponsored the measure. "It eases up the burden on teachers and kids a little bit and lets them focus."
Still, not everyone approves of the Senate plan. Despite his successful sponsorship of an amendment that would allow some students to graduate even if they failed the 10th grade proficiency tests in one of the five requisite subject areas, Sen. Michael C. Shoemaker voted against the Senate plan.
The influx of state assessments has forced teachers to abandon successful classroom curricula in favor of instruction geared to the tests themselves, the Democratic lawmaker argued.
"Mine was sort of a protest vote," Mr. Shoemaker said. "I didn't want anyone to think this was unanimous."
Vol. 20, Issue 31, Pages 24,27