Ohio has a school funding problem that’s been playing out in courts, political campaigns and the Statehouse for better than 20 years.
But the origin of it all is much older: the Ohio Constitution of 1851. It requires the state to provide a “thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State.”
So in Ohio, we are constitutionally mandated to provide an equal level of education to all students, no matter where they live.
A built-in imbalance
What makes that difficult is the way we pay for our schools; most communities rely heavily on property taxes. About half of a district’s budget comes from local property taxes. The other half is made up of a mix of mostly state funds, and some federal funds.
Because schools rely on those local dollars, there’s a big difference between how much money schools in poor urban and rural areas have, versus how much schools in wealthy suburbs have. Wealthy districts have higher incomes, higher property values, and higher property taxes to pay for the best teachers, state-of the art facilities and a lot of extra-curricular activities that many districts with low property values could only dream of.
A result of all this is, year after year, school districts have gad to ask voters to pass school levies. And, that where this guy came in.
The name of the education battle
“It’s obviously broken when you see so many districts, year after year, going back to the ballot for different things. That’s the test of time.”
That’s Nate DeRolph. His was the face of the last attempt to actually fix Ohio’s school funding problem. It was the DeRolph case, filed back in 1991. It went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which declared Ohio’s school funding system unconstitutional in some form or another – four times.
Gerald Stebelton is a Republican member of the Ohio House and chairs the House Education Committee. He says plenty has changed.
“Before the DeRolph decision, local school buildings were built almost exclusively with local tax dollars and there were districts that could just not afford to build new buildings.”
Wealthier districts could pass levies and build really nice buildings, but “the lower economic areas could not afford to build new buildings and a couple schools even had outdoor outhouses for their children.”
This was the problem DeRolph was trying to tackle, with mixed results.
An impact, though limited
Even though it ruled school funding unconstitutional, the Supreme Court couldn’t make the Legislature fix it. Finally the justices gave up.
But the DeRolph decisions did have an impact. First, Gov. Voinovich tried to fix school funding by putting a sales tax on the ballot. Voters rejected it.
Then under his successor, Gov. Bob Taft, the state began giving districts money to improve their buildings. More than $10 billion has been handed out so far.
Last year, for example, the state chipped in nearly $25 million to build a new K-12 school in western Ohio’s Darke County. The state sent $78 million to build four schools in Ashtabula County, east of Cleveland.
Over the years, lawmakers have tweaked the formula that helps pay for operating costs – sending more money to districts with poor students.
After Taft, it was Gov. Strickland’s turn to tackle school funding issues that went beyond tweaking and beyond buildings. He formed a task force. His plan put a price on what a quality education should cost, and called for the state to fund it, eventually. But that plan, and task force, fell apart when John Kasich became governor in 2011.
Don't expect more money
Now Kasich is set to present his own school-funding formula.
Kasich hasn’t told us what he’s going to do. But Eric Hanushek with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University talked with Kasich last year when the governor was trying to figure out how to fix school funding in Ohio. And he says, “I’m hopeful that he will come out with a broad weighted student-funding formula that allows for more autonomy and local decision-making, that encourages local decision-making but holds people responsible for outcomes.”
Asked if the governor was likely to spend more on education, Hanushek said, “I think that’s a tough question in every state of the union today because the economy is so uncertain and the tax revenues are so uncertain. I know that the administration here in Ohio and probably in almost every state in the union is committed to trying to improve their schools. That’s something very different from committed to spending a lot more money.”
That probably means no extra money for schools. But maybe the governor will come up with a different way of distributing the money the schools are already getting.
It could mean sending more money to charter schools and putting more toward private-school vouchers.
But the question remains: Is that going to fix things?
A built-in conflict
Robert Stabile is a former schools superintendent, and he wrote the guide book school officials rely on to make sense of Ohio school funding.
“The struggle for money is built into the system. You’ve got the schools, who are consumers of tax dollars. And you’ve got the residents out there, who want their taxes to be low. You’ve got the parents, who constantly want more services, … the bus to come closer to their home, classes to be smaller, more text books, more opportunities for kids.”
So there it is, Ohio’s school funding controversy that has lasted more than 20 years and perplexed at least three governors. Now it’s John Kasich’s turn.
It could always go back to the courts.
Tomorrow, StateImpact will sit down with Nate DeRolph, the face of the education-funding fight in Ohio.