School funding has been front-and-center over the past month in Ohio with the high profile Cupp-Patterson plan driving media coverage. While the legislation itself has merits and drawbacks, the news reports on school funding have unfortunately been riddled with errors and misconceptions. That’s a shame, as the topic is already so poorly understood by the general public. This piece is not meant to criticize the entire press corps—many journalists work hard to understand the issue and report it accurately—but to illustrate some common myths that continue to be filtered through the media.
First up, a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The article opens with this line:
“The Ohio House is expected to vote Thursday on a bill that would bring sweeping changes to how education is funded, since the current scheme was found unconstitutional 23 years ago.”
It’s true that the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the school funding system in place at that time was unconstitutional. But to say that the “current scheme” was found unconstitutional is nonsense. As I show in a new report, Ohio’s funding system is much different today than it was during the years in which the DeRolph lawsuit was being heard. Indeed, a reasonable reading of the data yields a conclusion that today’s system would probably pass constitutional muster with flying colors.
The article continues:
“HB 305 is the result of years of work and negotiations in the public education community, since it would change how much money the state’s 610 school districts receive from the state and raise locally for education.”
This bolded clause (emphasis mine) is an odd characterization of House Bill 305, the legislative version of the Cupp-Patterson plan. The sentence starts off well, correctly stating that the bill changes the amount of money districts receive from the state. But HB 305 wouldn’t necessarily change the amount of local funding received by districts. Under the plan, districts would, per continuing law, still be required to levy a minimum local property tax rate of 2 percent to receive state funds. They would still be allowed to supplement funding by asking local voters to approve higher tax rates. In the end, the plan doesn’t call for any changes to the way local tax rates are set or property values assessed.
A sentence later, the piece allows advocates to misrepresent Ohio’s current funding system:
“Proponents argue that the current funding scheme isn’t a formula and what they’ve created in HB 305 is one that is logical and can be defended.”
The proponents of HB 305 wrongly suggest that Ohio doesn’t have a school funding formula. Though suspended for FYs 2020–21, the state does indeed have one, and state legislators could easily restart the existing formula in the next biennium. Though it’s undermined by “caps and guarantees”—policies that work outside of the formula—the current model generally delivers state dollars, via formulas in state law, to the districts that need them the most. Unfortunately, only the proponents get their say about the current system. The article doesn’t include any comments from impartial sources (call me, maybe?) or even those who might oppose the plan.
Finally, the article makes a hash of today’s funding model in this description:
“Currently, the state’s education funding scheme attempts to equalize learning for all Ohio children, regardless of how rich or poor their community is, by bifurcating districts into two categories: those that are guaranteed state funding because their local property taxes can’t generate enough to educate students—which is 336 districts, or most of them—and the remaining ones with higher property values, which caps off the level of state funding they receive.”
Ohio’s funding system does not attempt to “equalize learning” by bifurcating districts into two categories. In reality, the state attempts to equalize funding by accounting for districts’ property values and, in many cases, resident incomes through a mechanism known as the State Share Index. When this index is applied to state funding amounts, it ensures that less wealthy districts receive more state aid. The “bifurcation” that is referenced above refers to two policies—caps and guarantees—that exist outside of the state’s funding formula and have nothing to do with equalizing efforts.
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Sadly, substandard coverage of school funding is not limited to Cleveland. Consider several statements in a recent piece written by the Akron Beacon Journal’s editorial board.
“Not only would House Bill 305 help to gradually end what can be nasty community fights over school property tax levies, experts say the state would finally be in compliance with a 1997 Ohio Supreme Court ruling declaring the state’s school funding unconstitutional.”
Again, HB 305 does not change local property tax law and thus Ohio citizens would still be asked to vote on local taxes. Like most elections, they’ll probably remain contentious. The editorial also makes the obligatory reference to the “unconstitutional” funding system—again, as if nothing’s changed and the DeRolph decision holds for perpetuity.
The editorial then asserts that Ohio’s education system “has deteriorated” since 1997.
“That’s impressive considering Ohio’s system—if you can call it that—has deteriorated since the 1997 ruling.”
Ah, the myth of the deteriorating education system. In reality, more is spent today on K–12 education than two decades ago. Adjusted for inflation, Ohio schools spent $9,074 per pupil in 1997. In 2017, spending stood at $12,569 per pupil. How is that a deterioration? Moreover, Ohio’s higher-poverty districts currently spend more than the average district statewide, something that my recent report and a study from EdBuild show. One could, of course, look beyond dollars and cents to gauge progress. In terms of educational standards, Ohio, in the 1990s, largely relied on check-box compliance standards in an effort to ensure that children were receiving a decent education. Today, the state relies primarily on academic outcomes to hold schools accountable for delivering results. It goes without saying that more needs to be done to increase educational opportunities for all, but the casual assertion that the education system is in decline ignores years of progress.
The editorial then goes for the crowd-pleasing slam on “private” charter schools.
“Another key provision would require Ohio to pay private charter schools directly for their students, instead of taking money from public districts, including local taxpayer funds.”
Charter schools are non-profit, tuition-free, open enrollment public schools. They are not private schools. The editorial also parrots critics’ refrain that charters’ “take” money from public districts. In truth, charter schools aren’t taking, siphoning, or stealing money that is under the ownership of school districts. Students voluntarily choose to attend public charter schools, and the money designated for their education rightly moves to the school in which they attend. To round out the urban legend, the ABJ editorial falsely states that charters “take” local taxpayer funds. Charter schools receive state and federal funding, but no local dollars (here’s a video about how charter funding actually works).
Finally, the editorial wraps up with the “unfunded schools” allegation.
“In this case, it’s taken 23 years for lawmakers and school leaders to build and agree to a plan that fixes a system that’s consistently underfunded Ohio’s schools.”
Whether schools are “underfunded” is certainly a matter of opinion, and many may well reach this conclusion. But the opinion should at least be informed by the facts. The average Ohio school district today expends upwards of $12,500 per student. That amount is just above the national average and comparable to the spending levels of neighboring Great Lakes states. Unfortunately, the editorialists omit those critical facts.
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School funding is complicated and difficult to explain to lay readers. But botching the facts and distorting reality doesn’t benefit Ohioans. On school funding, Ohio’s Fourth Estate can do much better.