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Editorial: School funding plan fails to close rich-poor gap

Feb. 15, 2013 @ 12:18 AM

School officials in southeast Ohio, like many of their counterparts elsewhere in the Buckeye State, were cautiously optimistic when Gov. John Kasich first announced the basics of his plan to revamp school funding.

The overhaul, he said, was intended to help students in poor districts compete while introducing changes meant to reward and highlight innovation. No school district in the state would see its state funds cut over the next two years, and the plan was billed as boosting districts that are lagging behind in property values and household incomes.

Altogether, the governor said, state spending on K-12 education would increase by $1.2 billion over the next two years, partly backfilling the $1.6 billion of education cuts in Kasich's previous two-year budget.

Then Kasich's administration released preliminary numbers about how each school district would be affected. For many, the optimism turned to disappointment, and understandably so.

An analysis by The Columbus Dispatch showed that of the 97 districts classified by the state as rural and high poverty, 82 percent would get no additional state aid in 2014, and 76 percent would get no increase over the next two years. However, of the 153 districts classified as urban/suburban with high or very high median income, 44 percent get no additional funding for two years, while another 44 percent get annual increases that average at least 5 percent. Granted, the percentage increases reflect fewer dollars because those wealthier districts get less in state aid, but many more would benefit from Kasich's plan than poorer districts.

In Lawrence and Gallia counties, none of the nine school districts is in line for more state aid, and only two of 10 districts in Scioto County would get more. It's hard to fathom why hardly any extra money would flow to these districts. Lawrence and Scioto have among the lower property tax valuations in the state, and those two counties plus Gallia all rank in the bottom third of Ohio counties in per capita income. Fifteen of the 19 districts in those three counties spend less per pupil than the state average of $10,572.

Contrast that with the Orange school district in Cuyahoga County, which spends more per-pupil -- about $21,400 -- than any other district in Ohio. It will get a bit more state aid, about $140,000 over two years, because the new funding formula deemed that it needed more money for special needs students.

Also troubling is the question about what will happen at the end of the proposed two-year budget cycle. Under Kasich's new funding formula, many school districts fell below what they received in state aid this year. In order to ensure that no district gets less money in the next two years, the state included what it called "guarantee" funds to make up the difference. But Kasich has warned that this guarantee funding won't be sustainable in the future. That suggests schools will face cuts down the road under his proposed funding formula. If those guarantee funds go away in coming years, that will mean a loss of nearly $15 million in state aid for schools in Lawrence and Gallia counties.

It has been nearly 16 years since a court first ruled that funding of Ohio's schools was unconstitutional because it was not equitable. Little has been done since then to fix that shortcoming.

Kasich's plan appears to fall short, too. In addition, it's difficult to see how his overhaul will provide any long-term solution, considering it already leaves open the prospect of significant cuts in state aid for many districts within the next few years.

Kasich and his education team need to devise a better plan, one that more closely aligns to what the governor said he wanted to accomplish. This one did not turn out as billed.

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