More changes needed to make ed. funding fair

More changes needed to make ed. funding fair

(Ohio) Lawmakers have passed a steady barrage of bills in recent years aimed at making Ohio’s school funding more equitable–but new research shows the state still has a ways to go.

A study released last week by the national nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners found inequities with the way school funding is both capped and guaranteed across the state, and in how property values are included in funding calculations without taking into account what districts actually receive in property taxes.

“States are still struggling to ensure that each student has equitable access to the resources required to meet his or her educational needs,” Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, Max Marchitello and Juliet Squire, authors of the report, wrote. “Ohio is no exception.”

“Despite legislative changes made as recently as the 2015 session, Ohio policymakers should take additional steps to ensure an equitable and efficient allocation of school dollars,” the Bellwether researchers noted.

Throughout the country, state courts have ruled that education funding is not distributed equitably or in some cases adequately enough to ensure that resources are sufficient to meet educational goals. Such rulings have spurred numerous revisions or complete overhauls of state school funding formulas.

Since the Ohio Supreme Court declared in 1997 that the state's school funding system was unconstitutional, members of the legislature have regularly enacted and revised varied state funding systems.

Some of the changes show lawmakers have made steps in the right direction, according to Bellwether researchers. Two years ago, the state’s highest-poverty districts received about $2,500 more in state and local funding than the lowest-poverty districts before adjusting for any additional instructional grants to help support districts with lower capacity to generate local revenue.

Currently, 92 percent of school funding in Ohio is generated from the state or local revenues, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Ohio school districts levy local property taxes, and taxpayers can vote to increase local funding.

The state share index–which determines the mix of state and local revenue in a district’s funding allotment–began measuring a district’s share in part based on economic conditions in the district.

But according to researchers, the index is based on total property value of the surrounding area and not the district’s actual property-tax revenues, potentially assuming that a district has more revenue from local tax levies than it actually does, which can result in underfunding.

“Districts experiencing inflationary growth in property values will look wealthier on paper, but they won’t generate additional revenue unless voters approve,” authors of the report explain. “Districts in these situations face the unintended effect of a net decline in total funding.”

Researchers also recommend the state phase out its current statute which guarantees that each district will receive at least as much state aid as it did in the previous school year, regardless of whether enrollment declined or how the student population may have changed. The study found that in fiscal year 2016, the state spent $124 million across 174 districts through the guarantee.

Authors also suggested legislators nix a law that prohibits districts from receiving more than a 7.5 percent increase in state funding from the previous year, noting that the arbitrary cap puts districts with increasing enrollment or declining local wealth at a disadvantage. Almost 200 districts were affected by the cap in fiscal year 2016.