School-funding pain must end

Have you ever lost your credit card and worried that a stranger was ringing up a big bill for you to pay? Fortunately, once you discover you have lost your card, you can cancel it and stop the theft. In most cases, the credit card company will cover the fraudulent expenditures assigned to your small piece of plastic.

Deduction funding, the way the state legislature funds private-school vouchers and charter schools, is like a community losing its credit card and then having the state legislature pick it up and use it to advance its agenda, without paying for it. The legislature has had a field day over the last decade, cutting taxes and looking good to voters, while simultaneously increasing education costs and slowly shifting more funding responsibility to local taxpayers and more blame to local boards of education. Its spending spree has forced an increase in local taxes just to keep up with the state funding that is being forfeited to private schools. 

State education dollars are appropriated based on local need and are supposed to satisfy the legislature’s obligation to fund its public schools, but deduction funding ignores this goal. Instead, school districts are expected to use state aid appropriated for their students to pay for students they don’t educate. In so doing, the legislature fails to support universal access to well-funded public schools and increases local education costs.

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights school system demonstrates the damage caused by the state’s willingness to advance unregulated and unaccountable alternatives to public schools. We are the hardest hit of any Ohio district by the percentage of our state funding that is diverted to pay for private-school tuition. This year, the loss of state resources left us with two unacceptable choices: cut programs or raise local taxes. Our district did both, yet it is still not enough to keep pace.  

Standard opposition to tax levies places the blame on bloated budgets, bad board decisions, or greedy teachers, but these are not the reasons we faced a financial cliff this year. It is decisions by state lawmakers that sent us back to the ballot for increased local funding, led to multiple layoffs, and brought the teachers union and board of education to a painful standoff. This funding void pushed the board to demand givebacks from teachers that were comparable to asking each teacher to subsidize a voucher. Everyone who cares about public education was put in the horrible position of seeking funding options that created pain and division within our community.

The legislature’s failure to treat public schools fairly creates deep division and conflict between teachers and school leaders, and mistrust and worry among voters. Our community must now try to heal from the local fallout of destructive state policy. These lasting wounds are the cost of legislators abdicating responsibility for school funding and using local communities as their credit card.

As I write this column, the fair school funding plan, as set out in House Bill 305 and its companion in the Senate, SB 376, has passed in the Ohio House of Representatives and is awaiting action by the Senate. It is a robust solution to a terrible problem. One key component is direct funding of vouchers. If approved, it would be a game changer. It’s the only way out.

We can only hope that the fair school funding plan becomes law. Then we can press to ensure that the legislature adequately funds public education in every Ohio community, so that all Ohio students will have access to a high-quality public education.

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 14, Issue 1, Posted 10:44 AM, 01.01.2021