Fair school funding could save the common good
My personal commitment to public education is grounded in the belief that all of us benefit from the education of our youth, and that’s why we invest public funds to provide for an education that is free and available to all. It is an expression of equality and interconnection. It has taken our society a long way and been fundamental to making democracy work. However, as I write this column while basking in beautiful fall sunlight, I fear that the common good may go the way of the dinosaur.
Well-funded think tanks and lobbyists, the secretary of education and the departing president, to name a few, have persistently championed individual rights over the social benefits of investing in the success of all. They encourage separation. They champion the use of public resources to advance religion, and, when it comes to education, they promote privatization over investing in strong public schools.
There is a ray of hope in the Ohio Legislature, though: House Bill 305 and its companion in the state senate, SB 376. If passed into law, this bi-partisan initiative would establish the Fair School Funding Plan, which, among other improvements, would reduce the disparities among Ohio school districts by reducing dependence on the local property tax and ending “deduction funding,” the system that now funds certain voucher programs, such as EdChoice, by deducting funds from the state’s allocations to individual school districts.
It would also finally respond to the Ohio Supreme Court’s 1997 DeRolph v. Ohio decision, which ordered the legislature to increase its investment in the public schools and to reduce reliance on property taxes. Until now, the legislature has chosen to disregard DeRolph. State lawmakers have consistently marginalized the public system and advanced private and religious education by allowing for vouchers and then requiring local communities to pay for them. They have also required local school district budgets to underwrite charter schools, another unaccountable education option. This scheme has eaten away at local resources and shifted more of the funding burden to local communities.
The legislature's heretofore failure to comply with the court order has made local communities less desirable as places to live and pitted neighbor against neighbor. The lack of predictable resources has made it harder for our local education leaders to increase school effectiveness. It has increased tensions between teachers, administrators and boards of education. The consequences have been painful.
Deduction funding has left communities on their own to make sure public schools can meet community standards for educational services and quality, and, as we sadly learned in the recent CH-UH levy vote—a vote that was essential to saving our district from catastrophic cuts in educational opportunities—it is becoming nearly impossible to protect quality by ourselves.
While commitment to the common good took the day in the levy vote, it was only by a thread. We have reached the breaking point. Voters are left with two bad choices: hurt the community by raising taxes or hurt the community by slashing educational opportunities.
The month of December will determine the future of the common good. Through HB 305, the Ohio legislature has an opportunity to uphold its responsibility to provide high-quality public education. This refreshing example of bi-partisan policymaking would both increase the state investment in public schools and reduce reliance on local property taxes. While it would not end privatization, it would require the state to assume full funding responsibility for its private-school programs. It could save our community and it could reaffirm the common good.
The Ohio Senate and its president, Larry Obhof (R-Medina), hold the key to moving this legislation to the finish line before Christmas. Let him know you want to save the common good from extinction.
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.