Over the last decade the state of Ohio has invested over $10 billion in new school construction. Some of these school buildings opened in the mid-2000s, only to be shut down or repurposed just five or six years later. The Dayton Daily News reported in August 2011, for example, that “Trotwood-Madison is closing two elementary schools this fall. The Springfield City School District and Tecumseh Local schools are repurposing a new school building each because they didn’t have the students to fill them.”

This story of new public school buildings being built, and closed in just a few years, is important to understanding the logic behind Governor Kasich’s “Achievement Everywhere” school funding plan. His plan is remarkable because it actually tries to target children and their schools as the locus of public funding, as opposed to funding just school districts. The Kasich plan recognizes the fact that more and more of the state’s students attend schools other than their neighborhood district schools. As such, funding for their education should follow them to their respective school or educational program.

To understand what a shift in thinking this represents a little history is necessary. The public conversation around school funding in Ohio for decades has revolved around issues of “equity” and “adequacy;” between “rich” and “poor” school districts. The first “DeRolph” decision in 1997 by the Ohio Supreme Court, for example, ruled that school funding depended overmuch on local property taxes and thereby perpetuated unacceptable inequities across school districts. Since then, consecutive General Assemblies and governors have pumped more money into the state’s neediest districts. State funding for schools has more than doubled since 1997, and this doesn’t include the $10 billion for new buildings. In recognition of these gains, in its 2013 “Quality Counts” report, Education Week gave Ohio a C+ for its equity score, which placed Ohio in the top third of all states.

But, money for equalizing spending across school districts is increasingly yesterday’s fight. When it comes to families and the schools they choose for their children, district lines are blurring and in many instances becoming less and less important. Consider the following numbers for Ohio:

  • Open enrollment – more than 61,376 students attend a public school outside of their home district. If these students were all in one district it would be larger than the Columbus City School District. There are 29 districts in the state with 20 percent or more of their students as open enrollees, and 12 districts have more than 30 percent of their students enrolled in another school district.
  • Charter schools – almost five percent of all public school students now attend a charter school. Five “Big 8” cities have 20 percent or more of their students enrolled in public charter schools: Cleveland, 28 percent; Dayton, 26 percent; Toledo, 25 percent; Youngstown, 25 percent; and Columbus, 21 percent.
  • E-schools – more than 37,500 children attend a full-time on-line school. This is roughly the same number of kids attending public schools in Cincinnati.
  • Public voucher programs – more than 22,500 students are using vouchers from one of the state’s four voucher programs to attend a private school. This is equal to the combined total number of students enrolled by the Dayton and Youngstown public school systems.

The genie of school choice, in its myriad and rapidly evolving forms, is not going back into the bottle. Governor Kasich’s school funding plan recognizes this new reality and tries to make money flow to the school students actually attend. It goes further, and actually protects districts that are losing students through “guarantees” that fund districts for students that are no longer in their schools. This is not sustainable over the long haul, and puts off changes that districts need to make to adjust and survive. It is also inefficient in that it means there are fewer dollars for the schools that actually educate the students.   

School districts, however, are constrained in how fast they can adjust to losing students. Their fixed costs are not just in school buildings that go half empty, but also labor. About 70 percent of a school district’s costs goes to paying teachers. Under state law and restrictive collective bargaining agreements it is hard for school administrators to right-size their teaching force to smaller student counts. Most districts, Cleveland being an exception because of recently passed legislation giving them increased flexibility; have to reduce their teaching ranks solely by seniority. This means as districts shrink those teachers left behind are the most senior and costly. This further reduces the ability of districts to adapt.

These are tough realities. Governor Kasich’s Achievement Everywhere plan is controversial in part because it recognizes that some school districts are losing the competition for students. It, rightly, goes further by offering districts more flexibility to adapt, and through the Straight A Program provides grants for districts and their partners to seek out innovations that can help districts become more effective. Governor Kasich’s plan isn’t perfect, but it does move Ohio into the future.   

This article appeared in today's edition of The Columbus Dispatch.

Terry Ryan was Vice-President for Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and a Research Fellow at the Hoover Research Institution.

He is the author, with Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael Lafferty of Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).