At $17 billion and counting we can't afford to waste it

In producing the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's report Fund the Child: Bringing Equity, Autonomy, and Portability to Ohio School Finance (see here), we knew that critics would attack it as William Phillis did in a March 29 letter to The Columbus Dispatch. What we reported collides with the rhetoric and political arguments of interest groups like Phillis' Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding. They have been clamoring for more money for so long that they can't even see when they've won.

Fund the Child shows that Ohio has made serious progress in closing the funding gap between low- and high-poverty districts. In fact, in a 2008 report, the Education Trust cites Ohio as one of just 10 states that have successfully narrowed the gap. In 2000, Education Week gave Ohio a D+ for school-funding equity; in 2008 the state earned a B-.

These findings collide with the tired arguments of folks like Phillis, who have been calling for more state spending on public education for more than a decade, and they've gotten it. Using inflation-adjusted dollars, in 1997 Ohio's taxpayers invested $13.4 billion in K-12 education and by 2007 this had increased to $16.8 billion--some $1,930 for every adult living in the state. In this same period, per-pupil expenditures, again using inflation-adjusted dollars, increased 25 percent (from $7,500 to about $10,000).

Yet, there seems to be no amount that is enough for Phillis. In March 1997, Phillis told The Columbus Dispatch that he was unhappy with the Ohio House of Representative's proposed $949 million increase for primary and secondary education, a more than 12 percent boost in spending from the previous biennium. When he and his colleagues were asked by lawmakers in September 1996 what it takes to adequately educate a child their answer was "it is continually changing." How is that for helpful guidance to concerned lawmakers?

Fund the Child argues that the debate in Ohio and across the country needs to move to closing the gap between schools within districts. This is a position advocated by three former U.S. secretaries of education, a former secretary of the treasury, a former chief of staff to President Clinton, and two former governors. These leaders, among many others, call for "a new method of funding our public schools--one that finally ensures the students who need the most receive it, that empowers school leaders to make key decisions, and that opens the door to public school choice" (see here).

Yes, as Phillis notes, public charter schools that serve the poorest and neediest children would benefit under the proposals in Fund the Child as these public schools currently receive about 70 percent of the funding that district schools receive. But, traditional district schools serving the poorest and neediest children would also benefit by having the money attached to the needs of children as opposed to teaching positions and programs. Isn't this what Phillis wants? He said in 1997, "Ohio's impoverished public schools need legislative action, not legislative neglect." The proposals in Fund the Child would, if enacted, help the state's most impoverished public schools and the children in them.

Does anyone else see the irony in Bill Phillis' criticism?

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