By Susan Tebben, Ohio Capital Journal
Both the Ohio Senate’s and House’s proposed overhaul of the state’s public education system are speeding through committees.
Both the House and Senate heard hours of testimony on companion bills meant to spell out the changes that would be made to the school funding formula, one that has been deemed unconstitutional multiple times over the past few decades.
Last Wednesday night, the Senate Finance Committee spent an hour-and-a-half hearing from school districts leaders, some of whom are also members of a working group formed to find a solution to the education system that has been criticized for being inequitable and overly reliant on property values to determine state aid.
Earlier this week, some of the same administrators were on the House side making arguments for House Bill 305.
Discussion touched on studies that would be funded under Senate Bill 376 to fund out what a realistic funding model for “categorical aid” such as special education and gifted students would look like, compared to the current model.
Special education accounts for approximately 14% to 15% of students served statewide, according to Jenni Logan, treasurer and CFO of Lakota Local School District and member of the school funding workgroup. A cost study conducted by the Ohio Department of Education would look into changes in technology, remedial best practices, and other services to see if the funding levels are accurate.
A 2018 study by the Ohio Education Research Center observed the funding levels for districts, and showed gifted services were currently funded on two levels: identification of gifted students and coordination of those services.
“The gifted cost study found this to be an underrepresentation of what it actually costs to provide gifted education that meets the operating standards,” Logan said. “Our current funding method fails to take into consideration all the cost drivers for gifted education.”
Logan’s own school district shows a lack of recognition of costs related to gifted courses, such as Advanced Placement classes in high schools. She said instructional expenses for those courses were not segmented, so the portion categorized as gifted expenditures didn’t show up.
The Ohio Education Research Center study showed that more than 40 districts reported no gifted expenditures in 2017, according to Logan.
“This disconnect between financial reporting and actual district investment needs to be addressed, and we recommend the establishment of a work group to recommend improvements in that area,” Logan told the committee.
The House Finance Committee continued hearing testimony last Tuesday left over from their last committee meeting, when time didn’t allow for some of the dozens of school district members who previously came to speak on the bill.
Committee Chair Stephen Hambley, R-Brunswick, entertained the idea of moving some of the testimony to another hearing, as he did at the previous committee hearing, but during Tuesday’s hearing, he said he received a note from Speaker Bob Cupp encouraging the committee to hear all testimony that day. The testimony went well into the evening, after an afternoon recess.
The House bill, the speakers said, would do what schools have been begging the state to do while the previous state funding model failed them.
“We as a board have made decisions that I’m not happy with,” said Mark Hughes, member of Toledo’s Washington Local School Board. “We have made decisions that have taken away from our children, we have made decisions because we had to, for financial reasons.”
Hughes joined other school administrators in saying the new plan for direct state funding of schools, along with a more balanced formula to determine a district’s ability to pay their local share, will allow students to get a quality education without having to ration services.
“I think that base cost that is the foundation of this is so strong,” said Steve McAfee, superintendent of Logan Elm Schools.
But the base cost isn’t the only thing this bill would address that is needed: funding for special education, students with disabilities, and those who need extra resources need a new formula to bring them the education they need.
“Let me tell you, the difference between an ‘F’ school and an ‘A’ school (on state report cards) is not the quality of the students or teachers, it’s the resources invested in those students and educators,” said Marlon Styles, superintendent of Middletown City School District.
Styles also asked that the state hammer down on work improving EdChoice, the private school voucher program that allows public school students to attend private schools in the area on the dime of public schools. In Middletown, 80% of voucher funds are used to cover private school tuition costs “for white private school students who never step foot in public school systems,” according to Styles.
“This is just another systemic equity barrier faced by public school students,” Styles told the committee. “Over the past few years, we have been hit hard with EdChoice deductions.”
Only one opponent submitted testimony on the House bill, the Ohio Alliance of Independent STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Schools.
The written testimony from organization president Meka Pace said the new funding formula “falls short in terms of funding independent STEM schools.”
Pace shared concerns about a new budget line item that would be created for community and STEM schools under the bill.
“By separating our schools out, this legislation will make our students and schools unnecessarily vulnerable to being singled out for higher cuts and reductions in tight budgets, and susceptible to political pressures,” Pace wrote.
Cupp was the sponsor of the bill before becoming House Speaker, replacing ousted former speaker Larry Householder. State Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, continued with the years-long research done on the bill, and Rep. Gary Scherer, R-Circleville, came in as co-sponsor.
The House committee did not vote on the bill on Tuesday.
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