Smarter state policy would bring equality in education and taxation

Here comes another school levy. Here come the same letters and arguments we’ve heard over the past 20 or 30 years. And here comes the aftermath of the vote, with a small majority of voters relieved, and a large minority discouraged but determined to try again. This same drama has played out over and over for decades, with the local actors stuck playing roles defined by a tired old script. What would it take to change this predictable and unsatisfying plot?

Let’s set aside for the moment the effect of school vouchers siphoning off local school funding, or whether we think teachers and administrators are overpaid. Even without those factors, there is a kind of triple whammy with taxes and schools in a place like Cleveland Heights:

One, for any given amount the CH-UH district spends per student, that given amount will be a higher percentage of property value (thus a higher tax rate) compared to the Solons and Beachwoods of the world, because the average home in the CH-UH area costs less and thus is a shallower well for revenue generation. Two, the student body is more expensive to educate than average, with the most successful college-bound students getting many of the same kinds of advanced offerings as those in Beachwood and Solon, but also with many more disadvantaged and special-needs students requiring higher spending. Three, the higher proportion in the student body of disadvantaged and special-needs students ends up pulling down the district’s average scores on standard tests. These are effects of the district serving a community with a much broader economic range than the districts that cruise to “A’s” on the state report cards.

Because the state computes its school district ratings using only a given year’s scores, without tracking progress over a longer time, the best urban and inner-suburban districts don’t get any credit for areas where they really shine—catching up kids over a few years who arrive far behind, and helping special-needs students get to a place where they can be gainfully employed and contribute to their communities. That’s probably the biggest injustice of the state’s report cards: that the school systems that are doing some of the best work—and most of the heavy lifting for the entire state of Ohio, in terms of bringing real opportunity for disadvantaged students—get no credit whatsoever for that effectiveness, and instead get repeatedly labeled as underperforming simply because they happen to serve larger numbers of students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds that are not similarly represented in the highest-rated districts. Look more closely and you see that the kids in CH-UH who are demographically similar to those in Beachwood and Solon score just as well, and lower-income students in CH-UH do better than demographically similar students in uniformly low-income districts. That’s called making a difference.

In fact, the ONLY way to hide the good work those schools are doing is to NOT track student progress over the years. But that’s what our state gives us. Families look at those ratings and choose to move toward the more exclusive places  . . . which drives up property values in those places and depresses property values in the places they leave behind, further exacerbating the factors that lead to higher tax rates in older areas. It’s entirely possible that most people know perfectly well that what the report cards measure more than anything is the family income of the students in the classroom; and therefore, if you want to insulate your kids from other kids whose family income is low, the school report cards provide a socially acceptable cover for a decision to get your kids into a more economically exclusive setting.

If “Excellence by Exclusion” could be the state’s motto for education, it’s worth noting that this attitude is consistent with a general bias in policy throughout Ohio toward newer places at the city’s edge. Even if the school district report cards are not explicitly an instrument of outer-suburban real-estate development, those with an interest in said development are surely aware of how powerful an emotional tool the ratings are in driving up market demand.  

Similarly, one suspects that the reason the state’s mode of funding local schools through local property taxes remains substantially unchanged, despite being declared unconstitutional decades ago, is that the legislators who dominate Ohio politics understand that older urban and inner-suburban places have long borne a disproportionate financial burden because of the funding model (again, property tax rates have to be higher to cover a given expense in older areas because the average property valuation is lower than in newer places), and why would people representing exurban areas willingly give up a competitive economic advantage?

That said, one can question the wisdom of the state itself in encouraging its communities to cannibalize one another, rather than working together toward common statewide goals. There has been a long-running disconnect in Ohio where, on one hand, the state says it is committed to quality education throughout Ohio but, on the other hand, its policies related to education have largely just rewarded wealth and penalized poverty. That’s why it is so heartening to hear Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder’s recent comments about rethinking Ohio’s funding model.

Maybe it’s time to fundamentally reimagine this from a moral and practical standpoint, and get away from Ohio’s long tradition of communities using their local schools to compete against one another. Instead, commit to a notion that if you go to public school anywhere in Ohio, you’re going to graduate with a strong set of skills and knowledge that prepare you to contribute to our state’s economy and civic life. 

Let schools battle it out to establish winners and losers on the football field or the basketball court. But when it comes to the serious business of academic preparation, we can’t afford to sort out our kids that way any longer—not from a moral standpoint and certainly not from an economic standpoint. This would not mean taking the concept of the power of competition out of our thinking—not at all. Rather, we re-scale competition so what we’re talking about is how Ohio can best compete against other states, rather than how advantaged Ohioans can hold down disadvantaged Ohioans.

The variety of backgrounds and assets unique to our state—the New England-ish northeast, the Appalachian southeast, the heartland west, the agricultural, the industrial, the intellectual, the cultural—should be the basis for a well-rounded education grounded in our diverse reality and potential.

So, eliminate the local property taxes that go to local schools. Instead, institute a flat, state-level property tax of maybe 2 percent on all property, private and commercial, and use that to fund all Ohio schools. This would provide significant tax relief to the communities that have been paying a disproportionate share of their own wealth toward the cost of educating Ohio’s students. Continue to do regular standardized testing, using it not to pit communities against each other, but to identify which students need what help in which areas and help them—with supplemental resources targeted to the need at the individual student level. We need every player on this team to be fit and capable.

A shift to equitable state-level funding could well mean that local communities will look at their local schools less as a means of competing for residents against other towns, and more as a point of state pride, and that’s the idea: Why should parents get better-funded schools in one place and worse in another just because of how much their property is worth? A diploma from any Ohio high school should mean the same good thing. Take pride in this. Let local bragging rights play out on the athletic fields.

With schools funded at the state level, and teachers state employees, suddenly it doesn’t matter to local budgets if students move from one school to another. Let schools specialize a bit in the subject matter and learning styles they emphasize, and let students choose among local options. 

For parents who, for whatever reason, feel that a particular child may not thrive in the public system, we have a wide variety of fine private options, especially in and around the cities. Meanwhile, for most Ohioans, knowing that the public system will do the job well, and will be funded equitably at the state level, would be a revolutionary and life-changing improvement—for people individually and for our state’s long-term competitive prospects.

Greg Donley

Greg Donley is a longtime Cleveland Heights resident, and a volunteer editor and contributor to the Heights Observer.

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Volume 13, Issue 3, Posted 10:57 AM, 02.28.2020