Why Does Ohio Drag Its Feet on Equal School Funding?

Ohio students must pass state proficiency tests to graduate, but state legislators keep failing the Ohio Supreme Court's test on public school funding. Three times the court has found Ohio's proper

Ohio students must pass state proficiency tests to graduate, but state legislators keep failing the Ohio Supreme Court's test on public school funding.

Three times the court has found Ohio's property tax-fueled system of school funding unconstitutional because it promotes unequal funding among school districts. The Republican-led legislature has spent about as much time complaining about the rulings and attacking the Supreme Court as they have coming up with a solution that meets the court's standards for equity.

"The folks in power (in Ohio) are trying to avoid the issue for as long as they can," says Ohio Rep. Mike Shoemaker (D-Bourneville), a critic of state education policies and spending.

The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding, a group of more than 550 school districts, filed the 1991 lawsuit. Shoemaker was the only legislator to testify in the trial.

The Supreme Court, which first ruled against the state in 1997, appointed a mediator to try to resolve the dispute last year. The talks ended in March without a solution, and the case is back in the court's hands.

A key sticking point is the property tax system. Property taxes account for about 50 percent of state education spending, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

In Cincinnati, the number is 55 percent because the city has relatively high property values. Those are high numbers compared to nearby states, which passed comprehensive reforms after lawsuits.

The problem with depending on property taxes is certain districts, such as Indian Hill, can collect a great deal more for schools than poorer districts can.

Local property taxes represent 41 percent of state education spending in Indiana, 33 percent in Kentucky and 14.4 percent in Michigan, thanks to reforms passed in the past decade or so.

"(Ohio's) over-reliance on the property tax is the problem, not just the property tax," Shoemaker says.

In 1998 Ohio legislators halfheartedly offered a ballot issue to increase the state sales tax by 1 percent. Issue 2 would have raised $1.1 billion to reduce property taxes and increase school funding, but 80 percent of voters rejected the measure.

The state has nearly doubled its per pupil spending in the past decade, according to Maggie Mitchell, spokeswoman for the Ohio Senate Republican Caucus. In 1992 the state guaranteed $2,710 annually per pupil. Now it guarantees $4,814. Poorer districts also receive other support.

But that change hasn't reduced Cincinnati Public Schools' (CPS) reliance on local property taxes, according to Mike Geoghegan, treasurer for the district.

"In fact, our (share of state funding) went down slightly," Geoghegan says — by about 1 percent.

Shoemaker also says the supposed spending increase is deceptive. Only about $350 million of the $1 billion in new funding was really new state money, he says. The rest came from federal welfare funds that were supposed to be spent to help children in general, he says.

The state is finally spending $1.75 million a day to repair on school buildings, but CPS still needs a $500 million levy for its $1 billion facilities plan. The state could match 23 percent.

Shoemaker believes the state should pool property taxes and spend them on a per-pupil basis. Districts could pass additional levies if residents wish. Michigan's system is similar.

Former Gov. Richard Celeste did the most to improve education, according to William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding. Phillis blames practically all the other leaders in state government for not reforming education spending in the past 12 years or so.

"I think they're equally guilty," says Phillis, who from 1976 to 1992 was the Ohio Department of Education's assistant superintendent for public instruction.

Some legislators believe "OK is good enough," Phillis says.

At a recent Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce event, Gov. Bob Taft said the state didn't want to rely on sales and income taxes — as Michigan does — because they fluctuate with the economy. The state also looked into a statewide property tax, but Taft and others considered it politically unfeasible.

"The votes aren't there," says Taft, up for re-election this fall.

Maybe in November the votes will be there to elect leaders unafraid to tackle the state's education problems head-on.

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