Budget victory doesn't guarantee public school funding

Public schools in Ohio are funded by the state and with local resources raised from voter-approved tax levies. For nearly three decades this important state-local partnership has been out of whack. The legislature has not held up its end of the deal—it is underfunding the public system, forcing increases in property taxes and making private education a funding priority. Public schools and private schools are in the same line item in the state budget and are in direct competition for public funds.

Fortunately, public education scored a victory in the state biennial budget that took effect on July 1. Lawmakers retained the Fair School Funding Plan, a cost-based approach to defining state spending needs, and increased its investment in the plan by about $1.6 billion over two years. If they make the same investment in the next budget, school funding could finally pass constitutional muster. Lawmakers also increased funding for categorical aid, which includes expenditures for each student living in poverty or with disabilities, as well as for English-language learners and gifted students.

But vouchers won, too. More than $1 billion was set aside to pay for private school tuition. What if that funding went to public education—the option that is mandated by the Ohio Constitution?

The base cost is the amount of funding that every public school student is guaranteed regardless of where they live. In the new two-year state budget, legislators set the base cost at $8,400, up from $6,010 in 2020. Both the local community and state contribute funds to meet the base cost. The local contribution depends on the wealth of each school district. The state contributes a larger share to poorer districts.

Because the income level of Cleveland Heights and University Heights residents and the value of real estate are relatively high compared to many districts, the state will contribute $1,164 to the base cost for each Heights student for the next two years. Increases in categorical aid will increase state spending per Heights student to $3,171 in fiscal year 2025, up from $2,023 in the last budget. Based on enrollment of about 4,700 students, the Heights district can expect $14.5 million in state funding in this fiscal year and $15 million in 2025. Last year the state contributed $11.5 million to the CH-UH budget.

More state funding means fewer levies. According to Scott Gainer, the CH-UH school district's treasurer, at current spending levels the district will have a positive funding balance until 2027. The last levy was passed in 2020 to fill a deficit created by the law requiring districts to pay part of the cost of vouchers. The end of deduction funding, the infusion of federal COVID funds, spending cuts, and an increase in state spending mean the 2020 levy is projected to last five years longer than initially predicted.

The hard-fought victory that increased state spending on public education came at a cost. Public education was held hostage by Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman’s insatiable desire to make private education at public expense an entitlement. He won. The budget includes funds for five voucher programs, universal access to EdChoice income-based vouchers, and a $500 minimum tuition subsidy even for families with incomes 10 times the federal poverty level. EdChoice and charter school tuition are both set at a maximum of $8,400.

When lawmakers increase the state investment in public education, it stabilizes funding, benefits local taxpayers and strengthens public education. Greater state support should be the norm, not a tradeoff for something noxious, expensive, unaccountable and outside of educational norms!

There is no guarantee that, when the legislature’s latest income-tax cuts reduce revenue, lawmakers will prioritize public education and uphold their constitutional obligation to fund it. We can’t confuse a short-term funding victory with long-term security for our cornerstone of democracy—public education. We have to keep fighting.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.

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Volume 16, Issue 10, Posted 10:16 AM, 09.29.2023