Monday, June 1, 2015

School Funding: Here We Go Again

Every time I think we've perhaps turned a school funding corner as a state, something happens that undoes all that. Or at least expands the length of the block we need to turn.

Take this year's state budget. When Gov. John Kasich introduced his initial plan, it called for about half of school districts to get less money than they did last school year. That is not a good outcome. 

The Ohio House, to their great credit, recognized that the Kasich formula was inadequate, so they did what responsible legislators do when there's not enough money in an inadequate formula -- they created a guarantee that no district would get less than last year and they lowered the upper limit on how much any district could get as an increase over last year. And, most importantly, they set up a school funding commission (I think the 1,287,643rd established since 1991) to look at the issue.

This was a reasonable, rational and responsible way to approach this school funding issue. It's not perfect. And I really didn't like the extra $25 a kid for E-Schools for capital funding. But on the big issue of how to pay for educating our state's 1.8 million kids, the House plan was about as sound as it could be, given the tremendous shortcomings in the current formula.

Then the plan hit Ohio Senate, which is where some of the most important, significant and positive charter school reform legislation is currently being crafted by some of the state's best legislative leaders on the issue. And now it looks like Ohio Senate President Keith Faber has decided to (once again) dictate school funding policy in the state, regardless of what his committee and subcommittee chairs think.

On Friday, Faber told the Columbus Dispatch that he wants to undo the House plan and eliminate any guarantees and artificial caps on increases because he wants everyone to be on the formula. Look, that makes sense ... if you have a funding formula that makes sense. Right now, Ohio does not.

The formula, as currently constituted, is simply an arbitrarily increased version of the Building Blocks formula from the mid-2000s. That formula took into account three items -- instructional, support and operational costs -- to calculate a per pupil funding amount. The total in the formula's last iteration from 2007 was $5,732. The amount has simply been arbitrarily increased to $6,000 in this proposed budget.

To give you an idea of how inadequate that amount is, if you simply did inflationary increases on the Building Blocks from 2007, the per pupil amount would be $6,581.

But the Building Blocks only looked a few of the educational costs schools need. The next formula -- the Evidence Based Model -- looked at about 2 dozen educational costs and found that the per pupil amount should be closer to an average of $6,817 (as high as $8,333 in the K-3 grades).

Again, both formulas (Building Blocks adjusted for inflation) -- one developed by Ohio Republicans and one by Ohio Democrats -- both came up with numbers greater than the current state formula.

I'm not here to say there's a magic per pupil figure. And I think focusing on just the number is a mistake. What I care about is the process of developing a per pupil amount. That is where this current formula is so woeful. It doesn't even pretend to measure what kids need. It simply bumps up per pupil amounts by round figures ($100 a year) with zero regard for actual cost or need.

My issue isn't with the $6,000 per pupil figure (though I can't figure how that would be adequate) so much as it is with the current formula's lack of a rational approach to funding based on, well, reality.

Whenever examining a school funding formula, you have to answer the following three questions: How is the formula calculated? How do we ensure it remains adequate and at the cutting edge? How do we de-politicize school funding?

Answers to these questions are what any school funding fix must have. And, frankly, the House plan does address some of them. But it appears that Faber simply has no interest in dealing with really any of them.

Faber told the Dispatch that there may be districts with huge percentage increases because some districts are growing while others are shrinking. What does this mean? It means wealthy, growing districts will get huge increases because they're the districts with the least state funding, so any increase will be a big percentage. 

But other districts -- likely poorer districts -- will see funding cuts to pay for those increases.

In Kasich's original school funding plan from two years ago (that his own party scrapped), Olentangy -- one of the state's wealthiest districts -- received a more than 300% increase in the as-introduced version.

Granted, 300% increases in Olentangy make up a fraction, in terms of dollar amount, of a 5% increase in Cleveland. But the look was an awful one -- paying for large relative increases in districts best able to provide local support at the expense of districts least able to do so. This was especially true when a week prior to the formula's introduction, Kasich told an assembled throng of superintendents that the exact opposite would happen, leading to some superintendents to claim Kasich outright lied to them.

But it appears that Faber wants this reverse Robin Hooding to happen. Like if a few kids leave your district, that's your fault, so we're cutting your money. 

Look, I get that if you have a district of 4,000 kids and 1,000 have left over the last decade, you probably don't need the buildings you once had, nor do you need the staff, etc. But if you're a district of 4,000 and you lose 50 kids across all grades, your expenses will not go down. Why? Because that's not enough kids to warrant the closing of a building, or even the laying off of a teacher or the reduction of an electric or gas bill. That's losing about a kid per classroom.

Faber wants to double down on a formula that really isn't a formula just because he can. He seems to have little interest in actually trying to figure out how much it costs to educate kids, or what they need to succeed in today's knowledge economy. He just wants to eliminate guarantees, which hurts Ohio's neediest kids, and give massive increases in our wealthiest communities, which help our state's most fortunate children. 

I simply do not understand this approach from a policy perspective. It runs contrary to every goal of every serious education policy thinker I know on every side of the issue. Punishing kids because economies change and we live in an aging state makes zero sense to me. The point of a school funding formula is to provide the necessary resources for kids to succeed in all zip codes, not just a few. And I know well-meaning Senators on both sides of the aisle understand that.

It is indeed unfortunate that the state's most important Senator, though, does not. He should listen to his caucus' policy leaders on this. But, judging from his comments, I fear that instead of turning a corner, we just have to keep walking, hoping that the gap between buildings we see on the horizon is a corner capable of being turned, not just someone's open garage.