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Monday, May 8, 2017

What's a Baseline: Why Most Reporting on School Funding Falls Short

Since the Ohio House of Representatives passed its unbalanced budget about two weeks ago (an issue I'll take up in another post), I've been watching the reporting on its school funding provisions. No surprise. The focus has been on how the House version provides (slightly) more funding than Gov. John Kasich's budget.

Kasich's budget was compared with what districts received in the previous year.

Look, both of those stories tell us something. But they miss the point. And this is no knock on the reporters. They are doing what they've always done -- compare the current budget with the one immediately proceeding it.

This approach, though, misses the mark. Here's how. In 2007-2008, we went through the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. That resulted in huge revenue shortfalls for the state and its communities -- a shortfall that wasn't just an Ohio problem. It was a United States problem. However, the federal government stepped in to shore up those shortfalls, with the thought that once the economy snapped back, states would use the new revenue in place of the federal assistance.

But that's not what happened in Ohio and other states. Instead, they used the lack of federal funding as an excuse to cut funding to education and other services. Oh, and to cut taxes for primarily rich people. And in Ohio, the new Governor also eliminated nearly $1 billion in additional state resources that had been promised to schools after the state eliminated a tax upon which many districts had come to depend. And this doesn't include the explosion in the diversion of school district dollars to privately run charter schools and private school vouchers.

To me, the baseline has always been the Great Recession budget. For if you aren't providing more funding for kids than you did in the toughest economic time in 80 years, then your funding scheme probably doesn't meet the "thorough and efficient" clause of the Ohio Constitution.

What does it matter if this version of the budget provides slightly more funding than the one immediately proceeding it, if that version was demonstrably inadequate?

This is why when I and Innovation Ohio compare school funding numbers, we will always use the Great Recession as a baseline, adjusted for inflation. Because I and we believe that if Ohio can't provide kids more than what the state did during the Great Recession, the system is wholly inadequate.

So even with the "boost" from the House, this budget provides $828.6 million fewer to Ohio school districts over this biennium than during the Great Recession budget. In the last year of this budget, about 400 of 613 school districts will receive fewer dollars than they did during the last year of the Great Recession budget.

This is including all revenue headed to districts, which answers the ultimate question at the end of the day: What do kids in public schools get when everything's included?

So whenever you see my budget data, or Innovation Ohio's, it will generally be compared with what children received during the Great Recession. And it will likely result in children receiving fewer resources than they did during that awful economic period.

Until it doesn't.

Given our state's recent history, you'll be excused if you decide not to hold your breath until that happens. But until it does, we will hold our elected officials to that, I think, minimal standard.

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