Ohio does better than almost all other states in directing school funding to poor and minority students, according to a national report released Tuesday.
According to The Education Trust, a nonprofit education policy group in Washington, D.C. run by former Education Secretary John B. King, Ohio ranks near the top in making sure school districts with high poverty and high concentrations of minority students are getting a bigger piece of the state funding pie.
That might come as a surprise to anyone who is aware of Ohio’s decades-long struggle with how to fund its schools fairly. Complaints are perennial. School funding was even the subject of four Ohio Supreme Court decisions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ruling the system unconstitutional.
“This sounds like good news,” said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Office of Budget and Management. “A lot of the things that the Kasich administration has tried to do … is to direct funds to areas of the most need.”
In a state-by-state breakdown that included both state and local funding, Ohio’s school districts with the highest percentage of minority students get 28 percent more funding per pupil than districts with the least diversity. That was the best in the nation, researchers reported.
Ohio school districts with the poorest students get about 20 percent more funding per pupil than do districts with the most-affluent students — second only to Utah by that measure, the study found.
Looking at state funding alone, the poorest districts in Ohio get about 140 percent more funding than districts with the wealthiest residents, making Ohio fifth in the nation.
Any funding gaps matter, said Education Trust researchers Ary Amerikaner and Ivy Morgan, and their effects are amplified by the fact that poor and minority students tend to be further behind academically when they start school and require extra resources to catch up.
Using 2015 Census data, the researchers found that, on a national level, school districts with the highest poverty get about $1,000 less per pupil in state and local funding than do districts with more affluent students. Also, U.S. school districts that serve the most minority students receive $1,800 less per pupil than districts with the fewest students of color.
Imagine that $1,800 per-pupil difference in a district of 5,000 students, Amerikaner said. That $9 million could go a long way toward staff salaries and other services.
“These are not trivial gaps,” she said.
William L. Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, was highly skeptical of the Education Trust’s findings. He said Ohio’s school funding definitely has not been fixed.
“We know that the per-pupil level of funding (in Ohio) has no relationship to how much it costs to have a quality education,” Phillis said. “Ohio has steadfastly refused to do any cost study.”
Columbus City Schools finds itself in financial difficulty, and district officials blame the way state funding is doled out, specifically the way funding is capped for growing districts. The district is figuring out how to cut around $20 million for next school year, including layoffs and reductions. Over this year and next, it would have received $220 million more from the state if not for that limit.
“If your salary is supposed to be $50,000 a year, but your boss is only been paying $35,000, that’s not fair,” said Columbus City Schools spokesman Scott Varner in an email. “And it sure can’t be called a ‘raise’ if your boss now gives you $37,000 because you still aren’t getting what you earned or what was promised.”
Charlton acknowledged that the state funding formula works out that way, with caps but also funding guarantees that don’t allow districts to lose money from the year before.
“It’s unfortunate for Columbus that they’re not getting what they should, but there are lot of districts that are getting more money that they should,” he said. “State funding for education is higher than it’s ever been, a historic high.”
The report’s authors hope their work kicks off discussion.
“We are not at all saying in this report that Ohio is spending enough on its schools,” Amerikaner said. She advised taking a look at the outcomes of the state’s schools — the graduation rate, the test scores — to examine whether the outcomes are equitable between race and class.
If not, “then you have to ask why,” she said. “Are we not spending enough money? Are we not spending money well?”