It’s been a momentous six months for school funding in Ohio, after decades of debate over how to most fairly fund the state’s more than 600 public school districts. A plan crafted by a group of legislators and school finance experts addressed inequities that plague the current funding formula. But the state House and Senate disagree on the approach--and cost is at the root of it.
Last December, the sound of decades of work on school funding in Ohio echoed in applause across the House floor, as the first bill to overhaul the state’s school funding formula passed overwhelmingly.
But almost immediately, it was declared dead on arrival in the Senate, thanks to a price tag of $1.8 billion dollars on top of the more than $10 billion the state already spends each year on K-12 education.
When the new two-year session began this year, lawmakers started over with House Bill 1.
It’s a reintroduction of that bipartisan funding formula overhaul, which calculates state aid to schools with a formula of 60% property taxes and 40% household income. It would raise the state per-student aid, or the cost to educate a student, by a thousand dollars to $7,020. But because of the enormous cost, it would be phased in over six years.
Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney of Cleveland (D-Cleveland) was the Democratic joint sponsor of House Bill 1, which became part of the House version of the state budget and passed in April.
“By adopting this predictable, sustainable, transparent framework that is fair for every Ohio student, no matter where they are from, House Bill 1 would fully and finally address Ohio’s hopelessly broken system for funding Ohio’s schools," Sweeney said on the House floor.
But nearly all of the $1.8 billion cost to phase it in was left to future legislators to allocate over the next two budget cycles. The House budget used teacher salary data from 2018 and outdated property tax values in its cost estimates. And House Republicans had also pulled into their formula $1.1 billion that was set aside in Gov. Mike DeWine’s initial budget specifically for wellness initiatives for all low-income students, such as tutoring and mental health counseling.
Then Senate Republicans ripped apart the House plan.
Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) said their reworked proposal will allow for the cost of education to go up every year.
“My concern with the House plan is that in four or five years, we are right back where we were for the last 20 years, which is a large increase in spending and we’re faced with either cutting funding to schools, cutting funding to some other spending or raising taxes," Huffman said.
Senate leaders replaced the House formula with a two-year budget cycle formula.
It’s based on 80% of an average teacher’s salary and benefits, a student/teacher ratio of 20:1 and other money added in to total $6,110 in per student aid. And it puts over $428 million more into schools than the House budget does.
Senate Finance Committee chair Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls) offered this as a comparison of the two plans: “The difference is, our plan is sustainable and can be paid for, not only in these two years but in the out years."
But again, there are questions.
Senators used 2019 salary data, after noting that the House used 2018 data and that using current data would inflate the House plan's costs by nearly a half a billion dollars. The Senate also put back $450 million of the over a billion in wellness dollars that was initially budgeted by DeWine into those initiatives. Dolan had expressed concern about that money being incorporated into the House's overhaul.
Groups that supported the House plan are critical of the Senate’s. Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro
said the Senate formula it ignores why Ohio’s way of funding schools was ruled unconstitutional in 1997 – first, the reliance on property taxes.
"The House plan addresses that. The Senate plan does not," DiMauro said. "The second thing that the Supreme Court said is that there is not a commitment to adequately fund our schools that's tied to the actual cost of educating a child. The House plan addresses that. The Senate plan does not.”
The person who led the lawsuit against the state that resulted in the 1997 Ohio Supreme Court ruling also supports the House plan and opposes the one from the Senate.
Bill Phillis from the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding said as always, cost appears to be the main sticking point, and it’s time to get beyond that.
“Legislators will use any excuse – they’ll use COVID as an excuse, they’ll use international politics as an excuse – they’ll use any excuse for not biting the bullet and doing what the constitution of the state of Ohio says, and that’s to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state," Phillis said.
Lawmakers will have to work out the differences between the two plans before the budget deadline of June 30.