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Q & A: The Future of Ohio's Fair School Funding Plan

Until very recently, it looked like the Ohio legislature might finally overhaul the state's school funding system, which was declared unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court more than 20 years ago. But even with broad bipartisan support, the Ohio Fair School Funding Plan ultimately stalled in the Senate this month. So will this legislation have a future in 2021? Morning Edition host Amy Eddings speaks with ideastream education reporter Jenny Hamel about what comes next.

These reforms were championed in large part by Rep. John Patterson and House Speaker Bob Cupp. They were the authors of what was called the Cupp/Patterson bill. Remind us again how it would change the way Ohio currently funds schools.  The state Supreme Court deemed the current funding model unconstitutional actually four times because it over relies on local property taxes to fund schools. And what that ends up looking like in the state is a patchwork of districts — some that have more resources and some that have less resources to educate their kids based on the wealth of the community. So, kids in districts with lower property values end up losing out on an equitable education. 

The Ohio Fair School Funding Plan would address that in a multitude of ways. First of all, the state would establish a base cost for educating an average student in an average district. The state would also contribute $2 billion more annually to Ohio's schools that would initially be phased in over the next six years. In addition, the state would determine how much a local district can actually raise for itself, based not only on property values but how much people in that community make. Now, this is an important way to help equalize the issue of property value disparities. And finally, private school vouchers and charter school expenses would be paid for directly by the state. 

In early December, the Ohio House overwhelmingly passed its version of this bill with a vote of 84-8. But in the state Senate, it didn't get done. The Senate didn't vote on it. It stalled out. What happened? What was problematic for senators? 

It appears that for Senate members, it was a matter of not having enough time, only three weeks to explore the details of these really substantive reforms and not being willing to rush through legislation that comes with that additional $2 billion price tag on top of what the state already spends on K-12 schools. We know the state is muddling through the really harsh economic impacts of the pandemic right now. I spoke with Rep. Patterson over Zoom recently. We spoke about he, Speaker Cupp and Rep. Gary Scherer, another co-sponsor, about their inability to get this plan passed in the Senate. 

“I think part of the issue was the Speaker and I and then Rep. Scherer were so fastidious, trying to get everything right, that time went on and we weren't able to get it to the Senate quickly enough. And then COVID put us behind and the election hurt us,” said Patterson.  

What's the future of the overhaul of Ohio's problematic school funding formula? I understand there's going to be some studies?

In the capital budget bill, Republican Sen. Matt Dolan of Chagrin Falls added an amendment that orders the completion of various studies related to K-12 public education to try to determine where the needs are and what costs will actually look like. So they'll look at things like special education, incentives for rural districts serving gifted children, the cost of school learning and operating charter schools. Now, Sen. Dolan has also said that in the new General Assembly, they will be looking at the overall cost of the plan. And he has made a commitment that by the end of June 2021, there will be a funding formula in place when their budget passes. 

Rep. Patterson's term ends with the close of 2020. How does he feel about passing the torch when it comes to these sweeping education reforms? 

Rep. Patterson, you know, he speaks confidently about getting this funding model enacted. He points to Speaker Cupp. He points to Democratic Sen. Vernon Sykes of Akron. And he says there is a network of committed legislators around the state who do want to see a more equitable education for each child in Ohio. 

“We're going to expand our base in the Senate and do some education with some new members coming in. And the same in the House. And although I will not be on the floor to direct this, I'll do my very best to help our colleagues move it through,” said Patterson.

He does think that the House will take up this bill and replace it as a symbolic gesture to show the Senate, ‘Hey, let's start movement on the education overhaul right away as we head into 2021.’

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