As Governor Bob Taft prepares for his annual State of the State Address tomorrow, school funding is near the top of the list of legislative concerns. The General Assembly is under orders from the Ohio Supreme Court to adopt substantial changes in the way the state pays for public education. It has until June to do it. Some legislators say they're confident they'll make it, but thus far there's very little consensus on a solution. 90.3's Bill Rice reports.
Bill Rice- There are many facets of school funding in Ohio, and it's important to remember the Supreme Court's decision is not about rebuilding old dilapidated buildings -- other funding programs address that issue. The ruling applies to districts' annual operating budgets -- teachers' and staff's salaries, textbooks, supplies, energy costs, school buses, etcetera. Wealthy districts have lots of money, while poor districts suffer, and that's what needs to be fixed, says Democratic state Senator CJ Prentiss of Cleveland.
CJ Prentiss- We've got to figure out a way to get more revenue into the system in a way that addresses the issues of disparity amongst school districts.
BR- That's not going to be easy. Changes passed last year failed to satisfy the court, which in turn sent lawmakers back to the table to find a way to raise the quality of education in struggling school districts. And there's much division over how to do that.
Jonathon Entin- Nobody really knows what the court is looking for. That's part of the difficulty.
BR- That's Jonathon Entin, a constitutional law professor at Case Western Reserve University. This much we know, Entin says: The court feels the state's heavy reliance on local property taxes to fund schools is unacceptable because of the disparities between how much property rich and property poor districts are able to tax their citizens. But beyond that, he says, there's not much to go on.
JE- Because the SC has failed to articulate specific visions and standards, the legislature and governor have to keep struggling with this.
BR- So what's on the table right now? The notion of pooling business property taxes at the state level was floated by Governor Taft just this month. That idea appeals to Hugh Calkins, president of the Initiatives in Urban Education Foundation, a private group concerned with school finance. He says it's perfectly fair for a town like Beachwood, which has a high concentration of businesses and one of the state's wealthier school districts, to give up some of its tax base.
Hugh Calkins- Why should the shopping centers in Beachwood have their tax revenues spent solely for the kids in Beachwood? The people who use the shopping centers don't live in Beachwood, most of them, they live somewhere else. The people who work there don't live in Beachwood, they live somewhere else. Therefore I think one of the really necessary reforms should be to do something to spread the business taxation around among other districts.
Robert Gardner- It would have been difficult for me to get on board with that.
BR- Republican state Senator Robert Gardner chairs the senate Education Committee.
RG- Those districts with a lot of business and industry which put up with the headaches of having that business and industry would not derive the revenue from that, and we would send it all to Columbus, somewhat of a Robin Hood effect would take place where we would redistribute it.
BR- Republicans pounced, and Taft backed off the proposal. Gardner insists that whatever solution is ultimately reached should not take money away from any school district. So does State Representative Bryan Flannery, a democrat from Lakewood. Flannery has his own plan to reform school funding, based on ideas he gathered from citizens.
Bryan Flannery- What the bill does is it sets up a tiered funding system for public education. Also it gets us away from the reliance on property taxes by cutting property taxes by over 40% and replaces them with existing state dollars.
BR- Asked whether that might result in less money to spread around instead of more, Flannery says no, other adjustments in the property tax would solve that, such as eliminating over twelve percent in property tax rollbacks that home and business owners are now eligible for.
BF- That would save the state nearly a billion dollars.
BR- Flannery says his plan has generated some interest among other house members. But Republican House Education Chairman Jamie Callander is clearly not interested. He calls it the Plan to Bankrupt the State of Ohio. Callander is among those who feel the court has no business poking its nose into what they consider a legislative matter. Over on the Senate side, Robert Gardner says he won't go much farther than tweaking the current funding formula to try to funnel a little more money to poorer school districts. Nothing will be introduced until after Governor Taft delivers his state of the state address tomorrow. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.