Plan Would Put Flexibility in School Funding

Ohio's school-funding system is a mess. In recent years, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional four times, levies have become an annual event in many districts and charter schools are pitted against each other and against districts for access to state dollars. On top of that, like other states, Ohio faces severe inequities between rich and poor schools, stifling bureaucracy, bloated costs and rigid structures that limit school choice and innovation.

Any number of ideas are circulating for reforming public-school finance systems, from requiring schools to spend 65 percent of their dollars "in the classroom," to mandating that states provide "adequate" (i.e., vast) sums of money to schools. Some of these schemes may have merit, many do not, but none does what is needed: fundamentally and thoroughly overhaul the basic mechanisms by which public education dollars are disbursed to schools on behalf of their children. Weighted student funding does that.

Under this system, an idea attracting wide, bipartisan support, children receive set amounts of education funding and all of these dollars follow them to the public schools of their choice, including district-operated and charter schools. If youngsters have extra educational needs--because of poverty, disability, English as a second language, or other disadvantage, extra funds are attached to their education. And when these dollars arrive at a child's school, the principal has the authority to spend them according to students' needs. Principals could choose longer school days and additional tutors, could hire more or better teachers, could forego new playground equipment in favor of better instructional materials or new technology, and so on.

But doesn't Ohio do this already?

Don't kid yourself. Sure, there are programs to increase funding for schools with poor students, yet huge disparities remain. In 2004-05, for example, Beachwood City schools spent $17,763 per pupil while Chesapeake Union schools spent just $6,850. Moreover, while some funds follow Ohio students to charter schools that they choose, a good portion of the money doesn't move at all. A recent Fordham Institute study found that the average Ohio charter-school pupil received 31 percent less funding in 2002-03 than he would have in a district school. More than $2,500 of the student's education spending stayed in the district, rather than following him to his school of choice.

Furthermore, few Ohio principals have real budget authority, as vital decisions about the academic program, teacher pay and facilities are made in the superintendent's office.

As in most states, Ohio's system of public-school finance dates from the 19th century, when children were educated in the town where they were born, when those townspeople were pretty much expected to pay for their children's education, when mobility was limited, when changing schools was impractical and technological advances, such as virtual schools, were unfathomable.

To adapt education to the 21st century, we need to recognize that not all students attend their neighborhood schools and that citizens are affected as much by the education of children in other cities as by those in their hometowns. Education dollars need to be more fairly distributed, and they need to be portable. They need to be apportioned according to students' needs, and how they are spent should be decided by those best able to determine those needs.

That's why a diverse coalition of leaders, including three former U.S. secretaries of education, two former governors, business leaders and a host of school reformers and researchers, has embraced weighted student funding as a makeover of today's chaotic school-finance system. Ohio's leaders, including both gubernatorial candidates, should carefully consider its merits.

This editorial originally appeared in the July 9 edition of The Columbus Dispatch. You can find the link here.

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