Ohio school funding rise aims at social issues; vouchers could expand

State funding for schools for the next two years will be finalized in the next 10 days via the state budget.

Combined ShapeCaption
State funding for schools for the next two years will be finalized in the next 10 days via the state budget.

In some years, the state’s funding formula for schools is the most intense fight in Ohio’s budget process. This time, once legislators agreed the huge Cupp-Patterson overhaul wasn’t ready, the issue drew comparatively little debate.

Both the House and Senate now have passed budget bills keeping base state aid for schools the same for most school districts for the next two years, while adding more than $500 million for a “student wellness and success fund,” aimed at tackling health, drug, social service and other non-academic student issues. Schools with higher levels of poverty will receive larger shares of that wellness fund.

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“They have significantly increased the amount of money going to K-12 education, but in a targeted fashion, rather than across the board (through the funding formula),” said Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering.

That said, there are a few issues the House and Senate have to hash out in conference committee next week.

The House set the extra “wellness fund” amount at $675 million, but the Senate paired it back to $550 million, matching what Gov. Mike DeWine initially proposed.

The Senate allocated the other $125 million to two areas — school districts whose funding had not kept up with rapid enrollment growth, and an expansion of private school vouchers for low-income families.

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Ohio offers two types of state-paid private-school vouchers – one for students whose home public school scores very low on the state report card, and another for families below 200% of the federal poverty line, no matter where their home school is. The voucher pays up to $4,650 for grades K-8 (enough for full tuition in some schools), and $6,000 for high school, which is thousands less than local Catholic school tuition.

Sen. Matt Huffman, who had unsuccessfully pushed for the expansion of state-paid vouchers in the past, spoke in favor of the plan on the Senate floor Thursday. The Lima Republican said the expansion of state-paid vouchers would give families a wider time window to apply and make all low-income K-12 students eligible, rather than just adding one grade level per year (students in sixth grade are eligible for the first time this fall).

“If we’re here to talk about placing money where it’s needed most, it’s needed most by low-income folks who would like a chance to choose a school that best fits their students,” Huffman said.

Some have criticized the income-based voucher program in recent years, including Lehner in 2017. That argument has been that the state shouldn’t be paying for students who have a solid public school option to go to private school just because they’re poor, with no tracking of whether it’s helping.

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About 34,000 Ohio students attended private schools via state-paid vouchers in 2018-19, with more than 10,000 of those participating in the low-income program that Huffman seeks to expand. The program cost almost $50 million this school year.

Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, introduced an amendment to kill the voucher language, calling it “fiscally irresponsible” to increase spending while pushing state aid away from the local public schools that 90 percent of Ohio students attend. Fedor’s amendment did not pass.

Republican Sen Lou Terhar, of suburban Cincinnati, supported the funding the Senate added late in the process for high-growth school districts. But he said a basic change in the state’s funding formula for schools is needed, and the legislature shouldn’t wait until the next two-year budget to get it done.

State Reps. Bob Cupp and John Patterson had attempted that over the past year. The Cupp-Patterson plan drew praise for their bipartisan effort to rework the formula based on an accurate cost-per-student figure, and for getting more districts on an understandable formula, rather than forced caps and guarantees.

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But the first district-by-district funding numbers seemed to favor many richer suburban districts. That upset many educators because for decades in Ohio, academic performance – as measured by standardized tests – has been correlated closely with socioeconomic factors, with scores lower in poor communities.

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