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Report Finds Ohio Hasn't Bridged Funding Gap Between Rich And Poor School Districts

A teacher in a classroom
Columbus Neighborhoods

A report commissioned by Ohio’s three major public school groups shows that state funding for K-12 education hasn’t bridged the gap between rich and poor districts.

It’s the first comprehensive look at state and local aid for schools since a landmark Ohio Supreme Court ruling declaring the property tax based funding system unconstitutional.

The report looked at state and local funding for Ohio’s more than 600 school districts starting in 1999, the first full school year after the landmark DeRolph decision.

Howard Fleeter runs the Ohio Education Policy Institute, and works for the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators and Ohio Association of School Business Officials crunching numbers on school funding.

“It has not changed nearly as dramatically as I would have expected 20 years ago,” Fleeter said.

The DeRolph ruling said the state must find a more equitable way to fund schools, helping ensure poor and rich school districts are providing equal opportunities to all kids. But Fleeter says overall distribution of state and local money hasn’t changed much.

“The percentage increase that the low-wealth districts had over this 20 years is 3.8 percent more than the high wealth places. That’s not much of a difference. And in dollar terms, when you adjust for inflation - $107 per pupil more.”

In the 120 districts that are the poorest, that one-fifth or quintile, nearly 80 percent of kids are economically disadvantaged and many come to school with challenges such as stressful home environments and less access to early educational opportunities – which makes them more likely to fall behind their better off peers.

Fleeter says three quarters of the increase in state money came in the first 10 years after the DeRolph ruling in 1997. In the second decade, local revenues have been going up, but Fleeter says state funds haven’t even kept pace with inflation. Fleeter says that may be related to an attitude that school funding was fixed after the first 10 years, but there are other issues involved.

“It’s hard to deny that in this period of time where we’ve seen a decrease in the effort going towards education, it was the same time that we’ve seen significant cuts in state income taxes so I think there was a policy decision that was made to where we are going to direct our resources,” he said.

Fleeter also says lower wealth districts have been making what he calls a reasonable effort with local levy efforts, but they’re still behind – for a good reason.

“A high wealth district can generate about three times as much revenue from a mill of property tax, and that, in a nutshell, is the crux of the problem. So the same effort in a low wealth place and a high wealth place is going to put the high wealth place ahead in terms of what they can do. That’s why the pressure is on the state to have their formula come in and step up and make the difference,” Fleeter said.

But there was some good news from some low wealth districts in the report – for instance, Fleeter says fracking has dramatically raise up some poorer districts in eastern Ohio.