A good move for Ohio's schools, and how to make it even better
All Ohio families and students deserve a great school, no matter how much money they have or where they live. But today, Ohio students who live in communities where many people have low incomes attend schools without as many resources as schools in wealthier communities. In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court found Ohio’s school funding system unconstitutional because it disadvantaged students of color and students whose families have low incomes. More than 20 years later, state lawmakers still have not fixed the problem.
Thankfully, state lawmakers are working on a long overdue a fix. House Bill 305, and its companion bill, Senate Bill 376, would fund schools based on the actual costs in individual districts. It would boost funding to ensure schools in poor communities get the resources they need to match the educational quality of any school in the state.
Why is this proposal so important? Superintendent Marlon Styles of the Middletown City School District, speaking on behalf of 62 school districts in Southwest Ohio, testified before the House Finance Committee in hearings on HB 305.
“Black students in Ohio are eight times more likely to attend an F school than their white peers,” he said. “Let me tell you the difference between an F school and an A school is not the quality of the students or teachers, it’s the resources invested in those students and educators.”
Students in rural communities have to make due with fewer resources because of Ohio’s unconstitutional school funding scheme. State Rep. Jay Edwards told the same committee that teachers in his Appalachian district struggle to help children who are hungry, don’t know who will pick them up from school or where they will sleep each night. Good schools can stabilize the harrowing lives of children in poverty.
HB 305 is good, but legislators could make it even better. The proposed school funding formula remains hard to understand because would still be riddled with fiscal “patches” due to use of public funding for privatized education. Charters, vouchers and private school scholarships siphon enrollment and resources from many of the poorest school districts without providing a superior educational alternative. As proposed, this bill would remove them from the school funding formula, which would help stem the diversion of funds. But without more comprehensive reform, the proposed system remains convoluted, hard to explain and hard to understand. Even so, it’s a big step in the right direction.
The new proposal offers special benefits to the 40 wealthiest districts, capping local contributions in a manner that reduces their required local share. Residents of school districts that can afford to pay more should be required to do so, freeing up funds for pressing needs that are identified but not funded in HB 305, like universal preschool.
In Ohio only 26% of Black children and 41% of all children start kindergarten ready to learn. Children from low-income families typically start kindergarten two years behind their higher-income peers. Children who start behind often stay behind. Lawmakers should include public preschool as part of any comprehensive school funding reform bill.
HB 305/SB 376 boost funds for districts that serve economically disadvantaged students. Those additional funds should be targeted to classroom learning. They should not be diluted to address other, unfunded, pressing needs. Instead, policymakers should provide additional resources for those unmet needs — like expanded public preschool — as part of the overall proposal.
Resources for comprehensive school reform could be raised by making the state tax system more fair. Policy Matters Ohio released recommendations to raise revenue and make the tax code more fair by reducing special interest tax breaks and rebalancing the upside-down tax structure. Instead of cutting corners where funding is needed most, lawmakers need to trim school funding benefits for the wealthiest districts, close and reduce special interest tax breaks and restore the deep income tax cuts enjoyed by Ohio’s wealthiest residents to fully fund good schools in every ZIP code – as required by the Ohio Constitution.
With HB 305 and SB 376, the General Assembly is taking an important step to expand opportunities for all Ohio students, no matter their race or where they live. Inaction, like Superintendent Styles testified, isn’t an option if we want a vibrant state with a bright future.
“I draw your attention to 2 options,” he said. “Option 1: Ohio is just fine with the current system that creates opportunity gaps and undervalues low-income students and students of color, or Option 2: Ohio recognizes that the success of our state depends on the success of ALL of its students. Therefore, we are going to invest in the success of every child, regardless of socio-economic status, skin color, grasp of the language, and/or ability. Opportunities for all. We hope the Ohio legislators shift away from merely telling our students they matter, to actually showing them they matter by taking action to pass Sub HB 305. Find the courage. Answer the call. Do it for Ohio’s youth.”
For more than 20 years, Ohio students and families have called out for a fair shot at a better life. Now is the time for our lawmakers to answer them.