On May 20, 2000, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled for the second time that the state's education finance system is unconstitutional. The court set a June 15, 2001 deadline for lawmakers to remedy the problems that twice prevented the state from clearing the constitutional hurdle.
Perhaps waiting to see if voters would re-elect Alice Robie Resnick — one of the four justices who made this ruling — legislators and Gov. Bob Taft crafted no education finance proposal until nearly eight months after the May 20 decision. With Resnick firmly seated on the bench, Ohio's politicians are now rushing to meet the court's mandate before the looming deadline.
In its ruling, the court found Ohio lawmakers had not bothered to determine the actual cost of an education since the mid-1970s. The justices found the legislature instead paid for education with budgetary leftovers, backing into the school budget only after other items were fully funded.
Two recently introduced proposals — one crafted by Taft, the other by Senate Republican leaders — address this issue by attempting to emulate the spending levels of model school districts. Taft's plan bases the per-pupil cost — known as the basic aid foundation amount — on spending levels of Ohio school districts that, among other things, met at least 20 of the state's 27 performance standards, maintained a student-teacher ratio at or below 21-to-1 and employed a teaching staff of which at least 80 percent had five years of experience.
The Senate Republicans' plan, introduced as Senate Bill 2, utilizes a 1998 study performed by John Augenblick, a Denver-based education finance consultant. Augenblick examined the spending requirements of Ohio school districts that met at least 17 of 18 performance measures, such as maintaining a dropout rate of three percent or less and having at least 75 percent of students pass state proficiency tests.
Both proposals also address the court's concern with unfunded mandates, educational requirements passed by the General Assembly for which no money has been budgeted. For example, legislators had increased the academic units necessary for graduation without providing schools the money to achieve those goals. Taft's plan adds $24 per student to cover this cost, while Senate Bill 2 adds $85 per student.
With this stew of numbers stirred into the increasing complexity of the education finance calculation, Taft's plan yields a per-pupil basic aid amount of $4,490 for fiscal year 2002 and $4,670 for 2003. The Senate plan comes out of the gate a little faster, with $4,566 for 2002 and $4,694 for 2003. The governor's plan, however, guarantees 5.5 percent growth in the three subsequent fiscal years, while the Senate provides only for increases to match inflation.
Taft's fine-tuning of Ohio schools will raise the money spent on education by $807.7 million, excluding school construction and maintenance, in the biennial budget that begins July 1. This tab includes $510.1 million to increase the basic aid funding, $76.6 million more for special education funding and an extra $41.7 million for transportation. In addition to this court-inspired spending, Taft also mixes in increases totaling $179.3 million for teacher training and rewards, all-day kindergarten, early intervention initiatives, a volunteer-based tutoring program and the design and implementation of new academic standards and tests.
But the projected cost of Senate Bill 2, a $1.3 billion increase in education spending from the last biennial budget, dwarfs that of Taft's proposal. In addition to raising the basic aid amount, this substantial price tag includes numerous strategies to shift the financial burden of education from localities to the state. Perhaps most significantly, the bill introduces caps on certain expenses, such as transportation and special education, above which the state will assume all costs. Funding will also eliminate the effects of some provisions that rely too heavily on local property tax revenue.
Each of these proposals serves as a starting point for the education finance debate in Ohio, but neither currently has the political support necessary to become law. Both throw a lot of money at the problem, but both also attempt to patch with rubber bands and paper clips the monstrous, decrepit machine of Ohio education finance. Lawmakers may find that this machine must be rebuilt from the ground up before the Ohio Supreme Court will grant its approval.