Monday, October 28, 2019

Too Much Peanut Butter: How the Cupp Patterson School Funding Plan's Base Formula Bakes in Inequity

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What has become abundantly clear during these initial hearings of HB 305 -- the standalone version of the so-called "Cupp-Patterson" school funding plan -- is that the authors seem pretty convinced that the one aspect of the plan that should be edited the least is the base cost portion of the formula.

Proponent testimony on the plan's base cost is scheduled to be heard before the House Finance Committee Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. in Room 313 of the Ohio Statehouse.

What is the base cost anyway? It's how much the state figures educating the state's 1.7 million students should cost. So it takes into account several factors, including teachers, administrators, busing, mental health professionals, athletics, etc.

The ultimate cost of the base funding portion of the formula is $11.22 billion in Fiscal Year 2020.

That's a lot of money.

However, what's clear from the formula itself is that money is spread pretty evenly across all district types. In other words, the poorest districts get about the same base cost per pupil as the richest ones.

That's a problem because even base costs are decidedly not the same across districts.

It's much harder, for example, to find teachers willing to instruct students in small, poor, rural districts like Crooksville than it is in wealthy suburban ones like Bexley. However, under the current iteration of the Cupp Patterson formula, Crooksville receives $3561 per pupil for teachers and Bexley receives $3565 per pupil.

Likewise, Orange City Schools -- Cleveland's wealthiest suburb -- will receive $3,553 per pupil for teachers and Cleveland Municipal Schools will receive $3,570 per pupil -- a 0.5% difference in cost.

Because it's only 0.5% more difficult to teach in Cleveland than Orange? I don't think that's an accurate assessment.

These results mirror the overall result: there is almost no difference in teacher per pupil costs regardless of district type.

School Type Average PP Teacher Funding FY20
Rich Suburban  $                                        3,536
Suburban  $                                         3,561
Small Town  $                                         3,571
Rural  $                                         3,581
Poor Small Town  $                                        3,584
Poor Rural  $                                         3,587
Urban  $                                        3,596
Major Urban  $                                         3,610

This teacher equity issue spreads throughout the current version of the formula. Looking at the total cost, the spread is quite narrow between each school type, meaning the formula sees almost no difference in the base needs at wealthy suburban districts and poor rural and urban districts.

In fact, the lowest per pupil base cost is at Ohio's largest urban districts like Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, etc. Because their needs are so much less? Again, it seems a bit unfair to have these results on the $11.22 billion bulk price calculation for the school funding formula.

This result forces plan designers to rely on the weighted funding (Poverty, English Language Learners, etc.) or dream up exotic distribution fixes to a base cost formula that seems like it's piling on globs of peanut butter without much thought as to whether some districts' bread slices need more or less of it.

School Type Average PP Base Cost
Poor Rural  $                       7,873
Rural  $                      7,998
Small Town  $                       7,520
Poor Small Town  $                      7,420
Suburban  $                       7,282
Rich Suburban  $                       7,278
Urban  $                       7,333
Major Urban  $                       7,263

The authors and proponents of the Cupp Patterson plan have suggested they are open to distribution fixes, meaning adjusting how much of these costs have to be picked up by the state vs. the local taxpayer.

And they should be commended for recognizing that the way these funds get distributed should vary more greatly between the haves and have nots than the formula's initial version.

However, if $11.22 billion of the formula are calculated inequitably, how much of a difference could moving around even $1 billion (as an example) through various additional weights or distribution changes make?

There is a solution: building more equity into the $11.22 billion base cost formula. Doing things like acknowledging that smaller classes in poorer schools helps students succeed, or recognizing the difficulty in attracting talented teachers to the most difficult to staff districts would go a long way toward helping the formula work better at its initial calculation. An added benefit of working more equity into the base funding cost is you would have to be less exotic at the distribution or weighted funding end.

As Chairman of the Primary and Secondary Education Subcommittee of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee, I did this 10 years ago using an index based on poverty, property wealth and education attainment levels that was then applied to these costs, which helped to ensure districts with more needs and challenges were recognized as such by the funding formula from the very beginning.

I'm not saying that using an index is the only way to address the inherent inequity the current base funding formula employs, but it is a place to start, for we must work to improve this thing.

This funding formula is the best shot we'll have for a generation of getting this right, and its authors and working group should be lauded for their Herculean efforts. But it will require mutability of those who have put so much blood, sweat and tears into its drafting, not unlike what those who drafted House Bill 1 10 years ago did.

I know it's not easy. Having gone through exactly what these brave souls have gone through, I can assure them that working on all aspects of their formula, with no sacred cows, can make it work better for all our kids, regardless of where they live.

And that should be all of our goal.

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