Funding the future of K-12 education in Ohio
Part I: Funding crisis scales back Ohio highway projects, is education next?
Last week, Ohio’s newspapers warned, “Money crunch pushes Downtown roadwork way back,” “Local highway projects face delays,” and “Last phase of I-75/I-475 project stalls.” The financial problems facing the state have forced a major scaling back of transportation infrastructure projects that have been in planning for years. According to the Columbus Dispatch the Ohio Department of Transportation “proposes pushing back 34 projects that had been planned to start by 2017 to dates as far off as 2036.”
Jerry Wray, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, captured the problem when he told the Cincinnati Enquirer:
Unfortunately, this is Ohio’s new reality. For too long, previous administrations have added more and more to the list of projects knowing that there were more projects than funds available. Their poor planning has put us in the position of making the tough decisions and delivering the bad news to many communities throughout the state that there is simply not enough money to fund their projects.
The woes facing Ohio’s highway improvement efforts raise questions about whether education in the Buckeye State faces similar problems. Have the state and local school districts promised more than they can deliver? Has education really adjusted itself to the “new normal,” or have we been buying time and hoping for new money to bail out schools, money that isn’t likely to show up?
Despite the fiscal woes, Ohio is in the midst of enacting laudable education reforms. The state is totally revamping its academic standards as part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative and this means new assessments, new model curricula, new pacing guides, and lots of professional development (and that’s just at the state level). Added to this, Ohio is developing new teacher evaluation systems, seeking ways to turn around its most troubled schools, expanding private school-choice programs, and seeking to increase college-completion rates.
All of this change is suppose to happen in school systems that are strapped by declining local tax revenue and collective bargaining agreements that enshrine immutable fixed costs that steadily increase year-to-year to deliver the same basic services. Economists call this Baumol’s Disease: too often, labor-intensive organizations increase expenses without improving productivity.
Ohio, like the rest of the country, has seen inflation-adjusted spending on education increase two to three percent a year for most of the last several decades. And the pain that states should have started to feel in force in 2009 was masked for a couple of years by the massive American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Further, the lights at the Ohio Department of Education have been kept on in large part because of the state’s share of $400 million in Race to the Top grant funds that will dry up in a couple of years.
Again, have we overpromised in education like we have in transportation infrastructure development?
Will we soon hear calls for extending the roll out of needed reforms, like the Common Core standards or new teacher evaluations, from 2014 to 2020, or 2024? Will we delay efforts to reward effective teachers with the compensation they deserve and to provide better professional development to teachers who need it? Will we falter on vows to take action against persistently failing schools, and to provide more and better school options to children who need them most?
The current administration isn’t yet ready to tackle these questions, delaying the debut of a new school-funding model – and the consequences that will come with it for local schools and education policies – till at least the spring. Who can blame them for wanting more time to try and figure this one out? Maybe the state will dodge the bullet on the back of new revenue generated by casinos and oil and gas production. Time will tell, but it is hard to know if we are at the start of bold and exciting new reforms in education in Ohio, or at the end of a dream that will soon come crashing down like new highways we won’t see until 2036.
PART II: Bite the bullet, but use new dollars to implement Weighted Student Funding
Governor John Kasich’s decision to take his second State of the State address on the road has been big news in Ohio (see here). More interesting than the history (Kasich is the first governor to deliver the address outside of Columbus) is that he will be delivering his speech at Steubenville’s high performing Wells Academy, which has long been lauded by the Education Trust as a “Dispelling the Myth” school. One hopes the choice of venue is matched by a focus on needed reforms in education.
Governor Kasich and legislative Republicans delivered some sizeable reforms in the state’s biennial budget last June. But there is much left to be done. The most pressing issue facing the state is putting in place a proper school funding plan. The biennial budget dismantled the state’s ill-conceived move toward an evidence-based model of school funding and promised a new funding formula before the next biennium. The governor and his team need to deliver.
Fordham has long-advocated (with many others) for a move toward a weighted, student-based funding system based on three key principles:
- Full state funding (and, properly encouraged, local funding) follows the child to the school the he or she attends, including charter schools. (This could also be extended, voucher-like, to private schools willing to participate fully in the state’s academic accountability system.)
- Per-pupil amounts vary according to children’s individual learning needs and circumstances. For example, disabled and economically disadvantaged youngsters would have additional dollars in their “funding backpacks.”
- Resources arrive at the school as real dollars that can be spent flexibly with an emphasis on results, rather than on predetermined programs, rigid staffing rations (or number of positions), and immutable activities.
Weighted student funding equitably directs more funds to schools that serve high proportions of needy children, regardless of where they live, and it ensures that a student’s school receives all of the resources generated by that student, whether it’s a district neighborhood school, a magnet school, a STEM school, or a charter school and regardless of whether it is located in a poor or affluent neighborhood, a tranquil suburb or a tough urban neighborhood. Weighted student funding enables school leaders and other educators to deploy available resources in ways that meet the needs of their specific pupils, aligning authority and responsibility in a modern, performance-oriented management system, and making resources flexible even as their total quantity may be reduced. WSF also fosters accountability, for if fewer children enroll in a school, its budget shrinks, which gives management and staff strong incentives to improve their school’s effectiveness.
A weighted student funding system would encourage flexibility and innovation, as Ohio schools would be free to determine how to use their funds.
Of course, when it comes to school funding, lawmakers always look to the bottom line: What will the new formula mean for schools in my legislative district? Here, Governor Kasich and lawmakers should bite the bullet and find some new money for schools to assist in the transition to a more effective and modern system of funding. They wouldn’t be alone among Republicans. Florida’s Governor Rick Scott, for example, urged lawmakers in his January 10 State of the State to boost spending on education. He argued, “While lowering taxes and eliminating unnecessary regulations are critical, the bedrock of any sound, sustainable economy is an educated workforce well equipped to meet the challenges of an advanced global marketplace.” Governor Scott is seeking $1 billion more annually for schools.
Governor Kasich should follow Scott’s lead, but attach all new money to a new funding formula that pushes innovation, equity for schools of choice, and more control of decision making for the educators closest to the kids. Ohio, like Florida, needs to get it right for the kids.
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