Ohio has been handed a bucket of lemons when it comes to the economy and its impact on the state's finances. But, state leaders have the opportunity to make lemonade if they work together around education in the coming weeks.
During the recent budget go-around the governor and House Democrats did all they could to strangle charter schools of funding. Senate Republicans rallied and managed to keep charter funding intact. As a result, the Buckeye State's 330 plus charter schools and their 85,000 students were set to receive the same basic level of funding as in past years.????
Then, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled against the governor's plan to generate revenue from slot machines, blowing an $850 million hole in the state's budget. Without new revenues, education funding is on the chopping block. The state has warned schools that they face a 10 percent reduction this year and 15 percent next year. To avoid these cuts, Governor Strickland has proposed suspending a 4.2 percent income-tax cut that took effect at the start of the year.
Funding cuts of 10 to 15 percent would be catastrophic for urban school districts that receive more than half of their revenue from the state. In contrast, suburban schools receive closer to 20 percent of their funding from the state and the rest from local taxpayers so the state cuts won't be as painful for them. But, in this context, pain is a relative term.
For charters, however, cuts at these levels would be terminal as they receive 100 percent of their funding from the state and are already operating at lower levels of per pupil funding than their district competitors. (In Fordham's hometown of Dayton, on average, charters receive about $8,500 per student while the district schools receive about $13,500 per student.)
Out of this mess comes space for compromise. Republicans care deeply about charter schools and have used serious political capital over the last decade to encourage, nurture, and support them. Democrats, especially the governor, have made increasing school funding for traditional district schools a pivotal piece of their political platform.
No politician likes to raise taxes, but this is one of those times when a tax increase may be the lesser of two evils. Setting back urban school districts big-time while also killing off the state's charters would be a political nightmare for Democrats and Republicans alike. More importantly, it isn't in the interest of the state's neediest children and their families.
But, Republicans shouldn't simply give the governor his tax increase. In return for helping bail him out of a fiscal mess that is largely his making, they should demand his support for recently introduced legislation that would allow operators of high-performing brick-and-mortar charter schools to open new schools. The proposed legislation would also make it easier for veterans of Teach for America to attain an Ohio teaching license. Both actions would strengthen Ohio's case for federal Race to the Top dollars.
Ohio's budget crisis demands tough choices of our elected officials. Fortunately, there is a chance to create some positives out of an overall bitter situation. It will only require some bipartisanship around the needs of the state's children and schools, especially the neediest among them.
Photo courtesy of Dante Alighieri at Wikimedia Commons.????