State failing schools

Equal education for all not achieved 20 years after landmark case

If the goal of state funding support is to provide equal opportunities to all students in Ohio, the state has failed, a recent study suggests.

Twenty years after the Ohio Supreme Court found in DeRolph vs. Ohio that the way schools are funded by state money doesn’t meet the constitutional requirements of providing an equal education opportunity to children across Ohio, poor districts continue to be institutionally disadvantaged by the system, according to a study by a school finance specialist.

An analysis by Howard Fleeter for the Ohio Superintendents Association and Ohio Association of School Business Officials released in mid-August showed that state funding support over the past 20 years for the poorest districts increased only 3.8 percentage points more than the support for the wealthiest districts, when measured by the per-pupil amount provided by the state.

“In light of this, it is no wonder that the overall distribution of state and local revenue across Ohio school districts has not changed appreciably in the aftermath of DeRolph,” Fleeter’s analysis said.

Fleeter’s analysis divides Ohio’s more than 600 school districts into quintiles – five groups – according to a wealth index that takes into account property values, median income and other factors. Because over the past 20 years some districts have moved from one quintile to another, his data does not track individual districts over the entire two decades.

The complexity of the funding system rivals the Facebook algorithm, with calculations to compensate for its iniquities having accumulated over the decades like scaffolding on a building that is never quite finished. One element used is the amount a district can raise in local funding by application of 1 mill of property tax, and the range illustrates the relative wealth and poverty of districts across the state: 1 mill in Danbury Local schools in Ottawa County could raise $871 per pupil in the system; 1 mill in the Campbell City School District in Mahoning County would raise $49.61. Washington County’s lowest ranking district on that measurement is Frontier Local Schools, which could raise $116 per student with a 1 mill tax.

Belpre City Schools is nearly a poster-child example of a school district experiencing the disadvantages of the state formulas. Using Fleeter’s inflation factor – taken from the cost of living index published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics – the district’s allocation from the state has barely moved in 20 years, from $2,665 to $2,672.

Superintendent Tony Dunn said Belpre has kept its “wealth factors” but lost students during that time, which means under the state funding formula it appears richer than it actually is.

“We have about the same amount of funding (per student) with fewer students in the district,” he said. “That doesn’t speak to inflation, to new unfunded mandates from the General Assembly, the upkeep of outdated facilities and new needs for security, and just the way things have changed over the past 20 years. Look at technology alone, consider the number of devices kids bring to school and those we have to maintain.”

The greater the local “wealth factor” is for a district under the formula, the less it is likely to receive from the state. The formula also fails to account fully for the drop-off over time of local property tax revenues, which don’t increase over time. A five-year levy, for example, applies to the fixed amount it raises in the first year, so if property values increase over the term of the levy, the district realizes taxation only on the values from the first year. If the district also loses enrollment over time, it is doubly disadvantaged under the funding formula.

“The property-based education funding system is a travesty,” Dunn said. “It is not an equitable system for students throughout the state, it’s where you live that determines what the educational opportunities are for your children.”

Fort Frye superintendent Stephanie Starcher said her district receives what is termed a “guarantee,” a status reserved mainly for small districts that guarantees a minimum amount per pupil to ensure a certain degree of stability. Starcher said one way the system could better reflect reality would be adjusting the transportation support, which doesn’t reflect the true costs in rural areas.

“In rural areas where students are geographically dispersed and roads are often unpaved with elevated terrain, the wear and tear on school transportation vehicles is tremendous,” she said. “Buses and vans have to be replaced more frequently than in districts where the square mileage is less, the roads are all paved and the population density is greater. It costs approximately $95,000 to buy a new school bus with basic features, and the local district pays this cost.”

Warren Local Schools Superintendent Kyle Newton said that even though more than half the population in Ohio lives in rural districts, the one-size-fits-all approach of state funding will always favor urban and suburban districts. As an example, he said, Warren spends 8 percent of its budget on transportation — just getting students to and from school — whereas large urban districts like Columbus spend less than one percent on the same function..

Newton said ideally the state would look at the actual cost of education in each district and use that as a departure point rather than simply basing an allocation on what’s been spent in the past.

“You need to start figuring that out,” he said. “And I don’t mean asking for a lot like polo teams or individual string instrument lessons. What do you need to provide transportation, counselors, speech and language pathologists, technology and — what is needed to provide a good education? How much does it cost, in your district, to educate a student?”

1997-2017 state support per pupil, Washington County school districts:

Belpre, 2017

•Per pupil, one mill of local property tax:160.77

•Per pupil expenditure: $11,170.96

•State funding per pupil: $2,672.78

•State funding per pupil, 1997 (inflation-adjusted): $2,665.28

Fort Frye, 2017

•Per pupil, one mill of local property tax: $282.04

•Per pupil expenditure: $10,659.85

•State funding per pupil: $4,461.08

•State funding per pupil, 1997 (inflation-adjusted): $2,384.75

Frontier, 2017

•Per pupil, one mill of local property tax:$116.46

•Per pupil expenditure: $12,636.16

•State funding per pupil: $8,221.63

•State funding per pupil, 1997 (inflation-adjusted): $5,614.17

Marietta

•Per pupil, one mill of local property tax:$183.56

•Per pupil expenditure: $10,041.55

•State funding per pupil: $3,052.68

•State funding per pupil, 1997 (inflation-adjusted): $3.804.72

Warren

•Per pupil, one mill of local property tax:$142.73

•Per pupil expenditure: $10,163.56

•State funding per pupil: $5,670.72

•State funding per pupil, 1997 (inflation-adjusted): $3,360.18

Wolf Creek

•Per pupil, one mill of local property tax: $289.62

•Per pupil expenditure: $12,158.67

•State funding per pupil: $3,135.14

•State funding per pupil, 1997 (inflation-adjusted): $1,282.44

State averages:

•Per pupil, one mill of local property tax:$148.68

•Per pupil expenditure: $11,603.12

•State funding per pupil: $6,025.85

•State funding per pupil, 1997 (inflation-adjusted): $3,645.98

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