No time for despair

I’m a hopeful person. I believe deeply in democracy, and I am devoted to the contribution our public institutions, especially our public schools, make to society and human advancement. But lately I’ve felt a lot more despair than hope.

When it comes to lawmaking, Ohio legislators seem to prefer sneaking their pet ideas into closed-door budget negotiations. When it comes to education, the legislature has imposed policy after policy focused more on destroying our public schools than elevating them. The policies advance a narrative of failure, not success, and justify disinvestment and flight rather than support and participation 

This bleak landscape makes me weary. 

On Feb. 10, State Rep. John Patterson, a four-term Democrat from Ashtabula, spoke at a public forum at Heights High about bi-partisan legislation that he and his best friend, Lima Republican State Rep. Bob Cupp, have worked on for more than two years, to “get right” Ohio’s system for funding public schools.

I am grateful to Patterson for restoring both my confidence in elected officials and my hope that the legislative process can advance public policy that is informed by facts and serves the common good. As a policy wonk, I’m interested both in process and substance. This effort hit the target on both. I came away with a flicker of hope that we might even get a new funding system for public education that is adequate and equitable.

Bill Phillis, Ohio’s leading advocate for school-funding reform, set the stage. He offered the long view of the funding problem and the legislature’s constitutional obligation to fund a public system, not private education. To make the funding system constitutional, it must increase the state’s investment in the public system and reduce school districts’ reliance on local property taxes. He was adamant that this is the moment to solve the problem and that House Bill 305, the Cupp-Patterson proposal, is the solution we need.

Moving back and forth across the stage, Patterson, a retired high-school teacher, described the contents of the bill and the process used to develop each component. He stopped frequently to inquire, “Are you with me?” The legislation would establish the amount of money that should be invested in the education of every public-school student and the formula for distributing state funds to local districts.

Patterson explained that the working group that developed the proposal included practitioners and finance experts. They addressed several key variables, including the actual cost of providing a quality education and operating a school district; the unique needs, special costs, and circumstances of the state’s 612 school districts; and a fair assessment of the capacity of each community to share in funding its public schools. The proposal includes a basic funding amount plus multiple add-ons for special costs.

Drafters of the plan wanted to respect the roles of local boards of education, which will decide how to spend the funding, and the interests of the taxpayers, who will pay for it all. It directly addresses over-reliance on property taxes, something that harms every community.

The presentation detailed a careful, well-informed process that respected information, reality and complexity, and it was not sugar coated. Implementing the proposal will be costly, and it will be a challenge to build the necessary political will. The proposal was convincing and sound. There was no wringing of hands or partisan blaming. The ultimate solution resides with us, and our job is to press for adoption.

Despair will not get us a better funding system. Thanks to leadership by a likable, down-to-earth legislator who is not deterred by the noise around him, we have a solid proposal on the table. This is no time for despair and the disengagement it produces.

Good legislators need engaged constituents and advocates. That’s us.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a 40-year resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She is active in the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters.

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Volume 13, Issue 3, Posted 9:39 AM, 02.28.2020