Ohio school districts seem to live in two worlds. There is one world where ever higher standards and accountability from the state and federal governments – and employers and colleges – are demanding that all graduates be ready for college and careers. There is another world where the state calculates an amount of state aid to local school districts that, with local resources available, pays for educating children from kindergarten through 12th grade.
They are two worlds because the state has no way of knowing whether the funds that are available in any given school district is sufficient to ensure that all students are ready for college and careers. When the state requires even more from school districts in student performance, it does not necessarily calculate the true amount of dollars needed to ensure districts can take the necessary steps to help students reach those higher standards.
In about a week, Ohio Governor John Kasich is expected to introduce a state budget proposal for FY 2014-15 that will include a new school funding formula for primary and secondary education. His administration has indicated that the state will be paying closer attention to making sure students get the resources they need to be successful. If so, that would be a significant accomplishment, and one that is long overdue.
The current method of determining state aid couldn’t be farther from that. Over the last two years, school districts have gotten state aid based on a calculation made from what money was available last year and how much local money they have to spend. With deep cuts of up to 15% in aid to local school districts over the last two years, and with some districts seeing larger cuts due to changes in state tax policy, that amount seems more arbitrary than ever before.
That creates frustration for Ohio’s educators who are continuously asked to do more with less and for education reformers, who are pressing for changes and results but get pushback from local school districts about unfunded mandates. The necessary calls for more efficiency – which we have joined over the last few years – can only carry the public education so far before a lack of resources starves out progress and reforms.
In order to keep reforms moving and ensure that districts have a reasonable amount of resources to raise academic achievement, the state needs to create a new school funding formula that accomplishes the following:
Costs out an adequate amount that is considered by most to be reasonable to support instruction that meets the state’s goals for student success. There is no one way to do this, but reasonable minds should see the logic of the calculation and at least understand how and why the calculation is being made.
In this costing out, the state should seek a close tie between the academic outcomes they want to see and the resources that are producing those outcomes. In other words, look at the schools and districts getting the best outcomes and see how they are spending their money on instruction. Base the funding formula on an aggregate of that amount.
The state should ensure that schools and districts are being the most efficient they can be in non-instructional spending by setting a benchmark for efficiency in transportation, building maintenance, operations and administration and funding at that level.
Finally, the state needs to promote innovation by creating an Innovation Fund that would support changes needed in teaching and learning so all students graduate with the skills needed for college and careers.
We’ve been working on a school funding formula that we think can accomplish this, and we are eager to see whether what the Governor proposes matches up. If so, then Ohio will be well on its way to – finally – bringing together what it wants to achieve and the resources to get it done.
Andrew Benson is executive director of Ohio Education Matters, a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks. He has been working on school funding issues for nearly two decades.