COLUMBUS -- Zach Jones stood behind a podium at the Ohio Statehouse, surrounded by educators and lobbyists holding brightly colored signs.
The seventh grade teacher at Mansfield Middle School is part of the All in For Ohio Kids Coalition, a group advocating for the implementation of the Fair School Funding Plan.
“Whenever we talk about school funding, we always talk about the numbers. One number I'd like to highlight is the year 2003,” Jones said. “This is the year most of our graduating seniors were born, but it's also the last time that my department received new textbooks.”
Jones said the curriculum deficits his students face are a direct result of Ohio’s model for funding public schools -- which was ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1997.
For more than two decades, legislators have attempted to meet the requirements of the DeRolph decision, which ordered a complete, systematic overhaul of the state’s education funding system.
Ohio’s school funding model was found unconstitutional because it was over-reliant on property taxes and not related to the cost of educating students, said Wendy Patton of Policy Matters Ohio.
“Our problem in the state is that communities with low wealth and low property values can't offer the same quality of education as wealthier communities,” Pattons said. “The state should step in and equalize that to provide a thorough and efficient education everywhere, or as we put it, ‘an excellent public school in every zip code.’”
Educators, advocates and members of the Ohio House of Representatives believe they’ve found a solution in what they call the Fair School Funding Plan.
Patton said the plan would give schools a sense of permanency and stability while fixing the constitutional issues in the state’s current system. The plan funds school districts based on a formula developed to determine the cost of education in that district, rather than a statewide average cost per student.
The proposal got its start as the Cupp-Patterson plan and was developed over the course of three years by a bipartisan group of legislators. House representatives on both sides of the aisle sought feedback from public school superintendents, treasurers, teachers and parents before presenting the plan as House Bill 305 in 2019.
The plan passed in the House in 2020, but got stuck in the Senate finance committee. Then it was incorporated into the House version of this year’s biennium state budget, which must be passed by both houses and signed by the governor by June 30.
The House passed its budget bill in April, then sent it to the Ohio Senate. The Senate chose to use its own school funding model in its version of the budget bill.
Advocates of the Fair School Funding plan were disappointed.
“This bipartisan initiative developed over three years, through the discussion and engagement of educators and stakeholders and parents and teachers,” Patton said. “This was really good public policy.”
After the Senate passes its budget, members of both houses will meet as a conference committee to come up with a finalized version.
Ontario Local Schools Treasurer Randy Harvey hopes the House version will win out.
“(The Senate plan) might be a short-term band aid fix to get by, but that’s kind of what the legislature has been doing for the last 20 years since DeRolph,” Harvey said.
Both plans would increase funding to schools, but Harvey said the House plan would generate more dollars for schools than the Senate plan -- even if the House plan is phased in gradually as legislators have proposed.
The Senate version would increase base funding per pupil from $6,020 to $6,110 as compared to $7,020 in the fully-phased in House version.
“Is it an increase? Yes. Is it woefully inadequate? Yes,” Harvey said of the Senate version.
According Jones, Mansfield City Schools would have received $7.8 million more in state funding last school year if the Fair School Funding Plan were in place -- $1.4 million less than the Senate plan would have allowed.
Howard Fleeter, an economist and consultant who specializes in school funding, also favors the House version.
“It checks all the boxes. Is it perfect? Probably not,” he said. “You’re always going to be tweaking the formula in one way or another because circumstances change.”
Nevertheless, Fleeter believes the Fair School Funding Plan addresses constitutionality issues of adequate and equitable funding.
Fleeter said the plan has a better formula for determining education costs and takes both property values and income levels into account when determining how much state support a district needs.
Both plans call for direct funding of private charter schools and voucher programs, rather than funneling state funds for these programs through public school districts. Under the current system, districts are often required to pay more for students who leave the district than they would receive in state funding if those students attended public school.
“Mansfield receives just under $8,000 per student but pays out over $10,000 per student when they leave for private or charter school under the voucher program,” Jones said. “Mansfield families are being forced to pay for private education for the kids who are never going to set foot in a public school to begin with.”
The Fair School Funding plan would also eliminate funding caps, which result in schools receiving less state aid than the formula calls for.
According to All In For Ohio Kids, Mansfield City Schools lost $1.2 million due to funding caps during the 2020-2021 school year. Ontario Local Schools lost $2.7 million. Madison lost $1.9 million. Shelby lost $173,266. Lexington lost $185,648.
While the Senate plan only addresses the next two years, Senate President Matt Huffman and Finance Chair Matt Dolan have argued it is more sustainable and affordable.
Harvey and Patton said the Senate could have done more for schools but chose a 5-percent income tax cut instead.
“You have to have a balanced budget, but you don’t have to have a 5-percent tax cut. One way to balance the budget is you don’t have an income tax cut,” Harvey said.
“By cutting state taxes and giving less to schools, you’re just forcing schools to go out and ask for more levies,” he continued. “Would you rather have an income tax cut or another property tax?”