Making Change: To Fund and How to Fund: Public Education and Ohio's Future

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Those who want to change Ohio's school funding system, really want to change it. In the weeks before Cleveland voters rejected a proposed 11.4 mill school levy last November, community activist Jim Knight suggested that, instead of passing levies, Ohioans need to push lawmakers to fundamentally change how schools are funded.

Jim Knight: Let's all come together, and go down to Columbus, with busloads - west side, east side, white, black, regardless - and just go down there and demand that they change this.

But not everybody believes school funding ought to be changed at the state level. Lieutenant Governor Bruce Johnson says school districts need to come up with their own solutions.

Bruce Johnson: The people of the state of Ohio are not calling for dramatically higher personal income taxes, or dramatically higher corporate taxes, in order to fund everything that school teachers in the state think they need. They have to justify that at the local level. and I think local support for levies are critical component going forward.

As it stands, many school districts rely on school levies to supplement state funding. Republican State Senator Joy Padgett, who heads the Senate Education Committee, says that will continue into the foreseeable future. But, she says, the budget now being finalized in Columbus will better support struggling districts, and is a step in the right direction. What stills need to be addressed, Padgett says, is what many call a fundamental flaw in Ohio's school funding formula-phantom revenue. That's the gap between what the state thinks a district collects in property taxes and what it does collect.

Joy Padgett: My goal, over the next two years, will be to find an answer to phantom revenue. Until we fix phantom revenue, I think schools will have to continue to go back more often.

But, increasingly, when school districts go to voters with a school levy proposal, the answer they get is No. In Garfield Heights, voters shot down a levy three times this past year and will face the same issue in August. According to schools Superintendent Jeanne Sternad, textbooks are out-of-date, class sizes are up, and many programs have been cut. If the district is not able to get its financial house in order, the state is set to step in.

Jeanne Sternad: I am, I guess, disappointed in the track school funding has taken because it seems that 10, 15, 20 years ago we weren't struggling as much with these issues as we are today. We still had the responsibility of putting the funding issues up, but there was more sense, I think, of support and responsibility in the community than there is now.

In last November's election, about half of school levies on the ballot across Ohio passed. But even a successful levy campaign, some argue, amounts to little more than putting a bandage over a gaping wound. Some were back before voters in subsequent elections, with varying results. Debbie Phillips, executive director of the Ohio Fair Schools Campaign, says that, statewide, districts are on precarious financial footing.

Debbie Phillips: Some of it we can quantify. I saw data last week that came out of the Department of Education, which indicates that we've lost 8,000 educators since the end of the previous school year.

And kids are getting involved in the debate as well-in some districts, mounting their own campaigns to pass school levies. Barb Bungard, president of the Ohio PTA, says some kids are wondering if adults really value education.

Barb Bungard: They see programs they want to participate in, be cut, or pay to play. Some of their favorite teachers are not able to continue because of teacher lay offs. I think that it does have a negative impact on kids.

Dan Navin is director of legislative affairs at the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, and says when the quality of kids' education is compromised, so is the long-term health of the economy. Providing kids with a solid education now, he says, is a good way to make sure they're prepared for the jobs of the future.

Dan Navin: The graduates from Ohio's primary and secondary school system are the ones that ultimately are employed by our companies, run our companies. They need the necessary skills to work here, stay here, and contribute to the state's economy.

Those who think school funding needs to be fixed don't expect it to happen overnight, but Phillips says she thinks real change is possible sometime down the road.

Debbie Phillips: Two years ago during the budget process, many legislators would tell us that no-one contacted them about this issue. This year, we're seeing a lot more discussion.

And if the legislature fails to change the system, she says, voters will take matters into their own hands. Efforts to bring school funding initiatives to voters are already underway.

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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