Last Friday, legislators rolled out an updated version of the Cupp-Patterson school funding plan, named after House Speaker Bob Cupp and Representative John Patterson. The plan was first introduced in the spring of 2019 and garnered significant media and lawmaker attention before the pandemic struck.
In brief, the plan would overhaul the funding formula that is used to distribute state dollars to Ohio school districts and public charter schools. Fully implemented, it would add—according to estimates released last week—a whopping $2 billion per year in state K–12 education outlays (a nearly 20 percent increase above the $10.5 billion currently spent). The latest price tag is up from an earlier version that called for $1.5 billion in additional state expenditures. Throw local and federal funding into the mix, and it would result in an increase of 8 percent on average.
The lead sponsors of the bill expressed hope that the plan would be enacted during the “lame duck” session between now and December 31. That’s certainly possible—there will be committee hearings, at least, over the next six weeks—but it’s more likely that the proposal will reemerge when the next General Assembly convenes in January and work begins on the state’s biennial budget. Proponents are urging swift enactment of the proposed framework, even if the plan cannot be fully funded, likely leaving the hard and more politically treacherous work of finding the money to future legislators.
In the coming days, I’ll be digging into the plan details in Substitute House Bill 305 and Senate Bill 376. In particular, the approach to funding school choice should be closely examined as the earlier iteration was not-so-friendly to choice programs. But even without knowing all the details, several big-picture questions still loom large.
- Is it responsible to enact a school funding plan that costs so much? The prior version of the Cupp-Patterson plan acknowledged the significant costs required to fully implement the new system and proposed a six-year phase-in, something that the updated version is also likely to include. This would have been a heavy lift even in normal times, but we now have a fragile economy and an uncertain state budget outlook, at least for the foreseeable future. Will the state be able to begin the phase-in of the funding increases in the next biennium? Would there be an appetite to raise taxes to fund schools, as businesses struggle to stay afloat and job growth remains tenuous? What happens if legislators adopt the plan, but can’t ultimately secure the money to meet its funding demands? Do they risk being accused of failing to fund their own formula?
- Will the plan win support from groups outside of the education establishment? Around the nation, proposals to increase school spending seem to be most successful when they’re widely embraced by educators, employers, civic leaders, and communities. So far, the Cupp-Patterson plan has received backing from school districts and the teachers unions—no surprise given the funding increases. But the plan hasn’t gained much traction with a broader range of stakeholders. To my knowledge, no business group has endorsed the plan. Indeed, it’s hard to see how it would actually benefit employers; there’s no money set aside for, say, credentialing or work-based learning initiatives. There is talk, however, about small businesses paying higher taxes to fund it. The plan has also yet to gain support from groups that advocate for educational choice, given the lack of provisions that might encourage charter schools to open throughout the state, increase private-school options for middle-income families, or ensure that all districts are open to children who reside outside of their boundaries. In terms of building a broad coalition that can support and sustain the new funding model, it still appears that the Cupp-Patterson plan has a ways to go.
- Could problems in school funding be solved in less expensive ways? To their credit, plan developers have identified problems that should be addressed by the legislature. But it’s worth asking whether they can be solved without spending billions in state money. The “cap,” for instance, is a well-known problem—one that the Kasich administration repeatedly urged the legislature to address years ago and that would be eliminated under the Cupp-Patterson proposal. But removing the cap—a policy that shortchanges districts with growing enrollments—would cost the state roughly $450 million. This amount could be phased in and/or offset by repealing guarantees, state allocations that “overfund” certain districts. Meanwhile, if driving more state dollars to high-poverty districts and schools is a chief concern, the state could add a funding stream based on students who are identified as truly poor. And in a move that would cost the state nothing, legislators could also demand that funds actually reach the schools in which low-income students attend (rather than be allocated to other schools within the same district). These improvements would cost the state less than what the Cupp-Patterson plan proposes. Why not take incremental steps to refine the system, especially at a time of such uncertainty?
The lead sponsors of the Cupp-Patterson plan should be commended for rolling up their sleeves and taking a close look at Ohio’s school funding model. Creating a well-functioning formula in “normal” times is a real challenge, and it’s doubly complicated in light of the current uncertainties. The proposal has important strengths, but its passage—and sustainability for decades to come—might just hinge on whether questions such as these can be satisfactorily answered.