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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