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Learning Curve is a statewide reporting project led by WKSU, in partnership with WVXU, that examines the past, present and future of K-12 public education in Ohio.Learning Curve looks at the state of funding, opportunity gaps, curriculum, services offered and the impact of the pandemic on education in Ohio. The series also explores what's next for public education and how public educators, researchers, government officials and advocates are using the pandemic to improve public education for the future.

K-12 School Funding: What Ohio Can Learn From Other States

Ohio legislators are trying to pass major reforms to the state’s school funding model, a model that the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional four times.

If House Bill 1 – known as the Fair School Funding Plan – passes, many of the changes would have Ohio following in the footsteps of states already touted for their education funding models, including New Jersey and Wyoming.

In 1981, David Sciarra and the Education Law Center, a legal defense fund, sued the state of New Jersey, arguing against dramatic inequities in how K-12 students were being educated. The class-action lawsuit represented 20 students from poor urban districts, but the situation was impacting children across the state.

“We had two separate school systems in terms of opportunities for children – one that was some of the best schools in the country and even in the world alongside poor communities that were struggling and also had significantly higher student need,” Sciarra said.

In the first of a series of landmark rulings in the case of Abbott v. Burke, the New Jersey Supreme Court deemed the state’s school funding model unconstitutional, telling the state to invest in poor urban districts so students there would get the same “thorough and efficient” education kids in wealthier suburban districts got.  

“There has to be a solid foundational amount of funding to provide the resources so that all kids in these districts have access to a rich and rigorous curriculum defined by our state’s academic standards,” Sciarra said of the ruling.

An important factor in New Jersey’s funding model is determining up front the actual per-student costs for providing adequate education, Sciarra said.

“So, it’s not just language arts and mathematics. It’s arts, it’s physical and performing arts. It’s health and physical education, technology and all of that,” Sciarra said. “So the funding is really base funding, which is always typically available in suburban districts, but often not in higher-poverty districts.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court decision mandated more funding for students in poverty, narrowing the funding gap to ensure better academic outcomes. That meant implementing programs like universal pre-K and funneling more state resources into urban districts.

“These are things like more reasonable class sizes, academic interventions for kids that are behind, intensive early literacy to make sure that kids are reading on grade sufficient,” Sciarra said. “A complement of support staff, nurses, guidance counselors, social workers to help make sure that social and emotional and mental health needs of kids are taken care of as best as possible. The teachers don’t have to deal with that.”

In Education Week’s Quality Counts 2020 Report Card, which compares states’ K-12 performance, New Jersey ranked second in the nation for school financing, beaten out only by Wyoming. 

Stephen Dyer, education expert with the Ohio Education Association teachers union, argues what Wyoming does right is accounting for everything it takes to educate a student, from the start of the day when they get on the bus to getting off the bus and in their own front door.

“You need this number of teachers for each kid. You need this for buses. You need this for HVAC. You need the teachers. You need support staff,” Dyer said. “You take an accounting of what an ideal school would look like, how many needs for each kid, and then you fund it.”

Counting up all these costs is called input-based funding, and it’s part of Ohio’s latest school funding reform efforts. But too often legislators “balk at the cost,” according to Dyer, who is also a former member of the Ohio legislature.

“The problem is when most states see the amount of money that is, they freak out. They try to figure out shortcuts,” Dyer said. “For example, maybe we can just fund one of those for every county or something like that. You know, one school nurse for every county is not a great idea.”

Despite Wyoming and New Jersey’s standing nationally when it comes to school funding, both states are still dealing with major education issues. And it all comes to down to where the funding comes from, said Mark Weber, a K-12 teacher and education policy analyst with the nonpartisan think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.

“We have pretty good evidence in New Jersey right now that this period of sustained funding before 2008 really helped a lot of those districts specifically,” said Weber. “Unfortunately, what happened is we had the Great Recession. We backed off of fully funding the law.

“We saw this other group of districts become the real issue in New Jersey,” he said. “And the thing that we found over and over again is generally they tend to have a large proportion of students who are Hispanic, which speaks, I think, to the politics of this as much as anything else of it.” 

The legal battle over equitable funding continues in New Jersey today. And while Wyoming was comfortably funding schools from its oil, gas and coal revenues for years, the state’s fossil fuel industry has been slowly collapsing. Republican state legislators there have been taking aim at school budgets as those funds have fallen off.

“To my mind, Wyoming is a great cautionary tale for Ohio because, again, you can set up high expectations,” Weber said. “You can set up a good formula that fairly distributes revenues, but if you don't come up with the source of those revenues, none of that matters.”

If Ohio is serious about adequately and equitably funding schools, according to education finance experts, the state legislature needs to make a commitment to regular and reliable revenue streams to help all students get consistently good educational outcomes.

Copyright 2021 WCPN