Education funding plan draws mixed reviews; package must still pass legislative muster
Jessica Brown reports:
Gov. John Kasich came to Cincinnati Friday to tout his new “Achievement Everywhere” school funding plan intended to boost academics and fund Ohio’s schools more equitably.
He received high praise among superintendents during the panel discussion here at Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School. But the plan has its share of critics, too, including one group, Knowledgeworks, that plans to field its own alternate plan to legislators in the next few weeks.
The Republican governor will have to address those concerns as he moves to the next phase: getting his plan through the Republican-led House and Senate. It will be presented as part of his overall state budget proposal which is being unveiled Monday .
If the funding system in the plan passes legislative muster, it would be a big win for Kasich. He’s the fourth governor to attempt to “fix” Ohio’s system of funding schools, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court four times since 1997. Every previous attempt has been unsuccessful.
“So far people have been very excited,” said Kasich Friday when asked whether he thinks the education plan will be a tough sell to legislators. “There’s always a sense of ‘[maybe I can grab more for my district.’ But if you’re going to grab more for your district and it’s not justified, you’re taking it from a district that needs it. So it becomes difficult.”
“Look,” he said, “the legislature has to work its will, but so far the reaction I’ve received … I’m really pleased with.”
Experts and legislators expect much of Kasich’s plan will survive, simply because it has a lot of ideas that educators like, and it doesn’t cut schools’ basic state aid.
He’s positioned himself well, said David Varda, executive director for the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, which provides support and legislative advocacy for public school business managers.
Varda said historically, governors can get most of their budgets through by not cutting school funding sources like the business tax and the basic state aid.
“That certainly satisfies legislators,” he said. “Their districts are held harmless even if they’re wealthier districts.”
He predicts a fairly smooth ride.
“Not that it won’t be amended, but you have a Republican governor with a Republican House and Senate.”
Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro, said she needs to see the details, but “I think, all in all, folks are really encouraged because the governor is investing in a plan that helps our children.”
It’s not unusual for legislators to withhold unqualified support for a budget proposal until they see the details, said state Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, who represents parts of Hamilton County. Seitz said he likes the themes and some of the provisions in the proposal but he’d like to see the details.
“At this point, we’ve only seen the broad outlines; we’ve not seen the (bills’) language and not seen the printouts,” he said. “Having been in the legislature 13 years, you learn to reserve complete judgment until you’ve seen the printouts …You just want to see if the numbers match the rhetoric.”
State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said she expects amendments and changes, but she generally likes the plan, too.
“It’s a very, very broad proposal with an awful lot of moving parts and a lot of unanswered questions at this point,” Lehner said. “But overall, conceptually, I think it’s right on target.”
The theme among school leaders ranged from excitement about new money for education innovation and the new funding model to just plain relief that Kasich didn’t propose cutting their state aid. Most are reserving final judgment until they get their “printouts” – the details of exactly what their districts are getting. Then they’ll go to their legislators to lobby for or against the plan.
Lehner said the budget contains many good things, like its emphasis on helping disadvantaged groups of children and targeting more money to low-income and low-property-value districts.
“Those people who are focusing on the education of all children in state are going to find that (aspect) very, very, very exciting,” she said. “Those people who are looking at what the proposal might mean for the pocketbooks of (their) constituents … might not have the same level of excitement.”
Friday’s appearance marked the only school visit the governor is making for his plan prior to unveiling his full state budget Monday.
Kasich and his staff gave an explanatory presentation, then tossed questions to the panel, which included superintendents from Loveland, Cincinnati, Georgetown (Brown County) and the Hamilton County Educational Services Center.
They all praised the plan, saying it will let them be more innovative.
“It shifts us from a managerial role to a leadership role,” said Chris Burrows, the Georgetown superintendent. “It allows us to get rid of the ball and chain (of state regulations) and lead our schools. If we were able to start our schools over again from scratch, would they look the same as they do today? I think we’d all say no.”
Georgetown Schools Superintendent Chris Burrows loved the $300 million Straight A Fund, or “innovation fund,” for which districts can compete. He said it could help his rural district of 1,064 fund more digital technology.
Cincinnati Superintendent Mary Ronan was glad the plan will consider the income of school district residents in addition to property valuation when considering how much state money it will get.
Dave Distel, superintendent of the Hamilton County Educational Services Center, called it a “game changer.”
But Kasich, who’s repeatedly said his plan is “not political,” hasn’t won everyone over.
The Ohio Democratic Party and Ohio House Democratic Leader Armond Budish have criticized the plan for not making up the $1.8 billion in cuts from Kasich’s last biennial budget and for funneling money to charters to the detriment of public schools, they said.
State Rep. Denise Driehaus, a Democrat who sits on the House Education Committee, echoed that Friday. “It’s just a restoration rather than a funding increase,” she said, though she’s reserving judgment until she sees more details.
Meanwhile Andy Benson, vice president of Knowledgeworks, said his group will be presenting its own funding plan to legislators, calling Kasich’s plan “incomplete.”
“That’s the grade I would give it: Incomplete. Good ideas, promising, a good effort, but incomplete,” he said. “Good ideas do not make a plan that accomplishes what you need to accomplish in school funding.”
He said the plan lacks academic achievement goals. The Knowledgeworks plan will figure out the cost of improving academics and then will provide a funding model to achieve that, he said.
Knowledgeworks was part of the group that helped Kasich’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, put together an “evidence-based” school funding model that was equitable but was never fully funded.
Reporter Denise Smith Amos contributed