An Amendment Adrift (and please don't save it)
January 23, 2007
Ohio is teeming with chatter about education reform, thanks in no small part to recent efforts by teacher unions and various other school district associations to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to “fix” education funding.
Few folks are rushing to praise the amendment--and for good reasons. For one, there is little empirical evidence that spending more money on education leads to significant improvements in academic achievement. Consider that the United States has tripled its spending, in cost-adjusted per-student dollars, on education since 1960 without gaining significant improvements in student outcomes. And communities where education spending increased dramatically due to court decisions have failed to see any measurable improvements in academic achievement as a result (see here). Most famous is Kansas City, where in 1985, a federal judge gave the district carte blanche to spend as much state money as necessary to make the district successful. Over the next 12 years, the state and district spent nearly $2 billion to build new schools, improve classroom instruction, and bring student test scores up to the national norm. Despite spending that could put the most inveterate profligate to shame, the district posted no measurable gains in academic achievement. Similar scenarios have played out in Sausalito, CA; Cambridge, MA; and Washington, DC.
Ohio’s proposed constitutional amendment seeks significant new financial inputs, which would be borne by Ohio’s taxpayers--many of them citizens dependent on the state for financial support (the poor and elderly), without offering any hint as to how success for these new inputs can be measured. The only benchmark the amendment’s proponents offer is the term “high quality public education,” which is nebulously defined as “collectively, all educational components, programs and services necessary to prepare each Public School Pupil to carry out the duties of citizenship and function at the highest level of his or her abilities in post-high school education programs or gainful employment.” What’s more, the amendment would make this “high quality” education a fundamental constitutional right in Ohio, opening the door to a slew of lawsuits and ultimately leaving it to the state’s High Court to decide if the “high quality public education” standard has been met (a difficult enough task with the current “thorough and efficient” definition--and sure to be almost impossible under the proposed amendment's language).
The amendment, if successful, would also empower the State Board of Education and an appointed education funding committee to decide ultimately how much Ohio’s K-12 education program should cost. And if lawmakers fail to agree to the price tag, they could face action by the Ohio Supreme Court, whose role would shift from interpreter of state statutes and the constitution--to enforcer of State Board policy (see here and here). Thus the proposed amendment would, in large part, circumvent the legislative process and give a blank check to the State Board (and by proxy, an unelected committee)--with no guarantee that state dollars will be well spent or result in greater academic achievement.
It’s little wonder that legislators, big city mayors (some of whom previously supported the initiative) and business leaders have dismissed the amendment as a fiscal disaster-in-the-making, one that could raise taxes (Ohio's were already the third highest in the nation in 2006 as a percentage of income--see here), and force deep cuts in other basic services and programs in order to fund education. Even Governor Strickland has voiced concerns that the amendment grants too much authority to the State Board and fails to specify how increased spending will be funded (see here).
None of this is to say that the state’s education finance system shouldn’t be overhauled (read: weighted student funding--see here). But any serious funding “fixes” should also be targeted at raising academic achievement and ensuring that Ohio’s children are well prepared to meet the demands of college and workplace.