Strickland education plan to be known soon

Published 10:58 am Monday, November 10, 2008

COLUMBUS — The stage is set for Gov. Ted Strickland’s big unveiling.

He has promised Ohio a plan in 2009 for fixing the way it pays for public schools, and circumstances are reaching a crescendo.

A new state superintendent friendly to Strickland’s education philosophies, Cleveland Heights’ Deborah Delisle, takes over Dec. 1. A series of education forums Strickland hosted has wrapped up statewide. And on Tuesday, fellow Democrats won control come January of the Ohio House, where the funding plan is likely to be introduced.

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The big question mark is whether Strickland will choose to make his school-funding plan his next state budget proposal, covering the two fiscal years that begin July 1, or introduce it as a self-standing legislative or ballot proposal.

Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said the vehicle for the plan has not yet been determined.

Speculation is leaning heavily toward Strickland placing the plan in his budget, in part because he named 2009 — the last budget year of his term — as the year it would be ready. Out by March, a budget is generally the most significant policy document a governor puts together, prioritizing his favored policies and proposing how tax revenue will be divided among them.

With Democrats now presumably able to pass the budget out of the House, Strickland no longer faces the potential false start that he would have in a Republican-controlled chamber. That prospect may have made a ballot proposal more attractive than it is now. Certainly, House Democrats will be eager to join in the credit for passing a plan to save public schools.

That is, if Strickland is able to come up with a plan that works. Ohio’s school-funding formula has been declared unconstitutional three times by the Ohio Supreme Court, which determined it was inequitable because it relied too heavily on property tax revenues that can vary widely from rich to poor school districts.

Past governors have spent a decade trying to find a workable resolution.

The strict deadline a state budget must meet — to be in place July 1 — would also put intense pressure on the Republican-held Ohio Senate should a funding solution be included.

GOP Senate President Bill Harris doesn’t intend to yield his party’s power, however. At a state government conference last week, he signaled that his chamber would block any attempts by the governor to raise taxes or end school choice.

‘‘Anything that would dismantle education choice in Ohio, I can assure you, will be dead on arrival,’’ Harris said.

During his first budget, Strickland proved himself an able negotiator. Through compromises with GOP leaders in both chambers, the fiscal blueprint passed both the House and Senate with only a single no vote. Jokes about the ‘‘Kumbayah Moment’’ extended for months.

It is unclear whether satisfactory school funding reform can be achieved without a significant tax increase. Bill Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding behind the Ohio litigation, is doubtful.

‘‘From a practical standpoint, I don’t see how he could do any school-funding reform within the monies that will be available for the Fiscal Year 2010 and Fiscal Year 2011 state budget,’’ Phillis said. ‘‘The state agencies have been instructed to build budgets on 90 percent or 95 percent of the current level, so there isn’t any money. Reform’s going to cost money.’’

Phillis noted that, in addition to its overreliance on property taxes, Ohio’s school-funding formula was also found legally problematic because it identified a pot of money to spend on public schools and then created a formula to distribute it, a practice dubbed ‘‘residual budgeting.’’

Strickland runs the risk of engaging in residual budgeting again if he places his plan in the budget, Phillis said.

‘‘The ruling said that school funding must undergo a complete, systematic overhaul,’’ he said. ‘‘If in providing a state system of education, you reduce reliance on property tax and you match the foundation (basic state contribution) level to the actual costs, it’s going to take resources.’’

One way around that might be to boost funding outside the budget.

One model may come from Ohio’s last Democratic governor, Richard Celeste, who introduced an underfunded budget and simultaneously proposed a revenue-boosting package of tax increases. The tax hikes — making permanent a temporary tax surcharge that was already in place, and adding a 40-percent income tax increase — passed a Democratic-controlled Legislature, and Celeste used the proceeds to significantly boost education funding.

But Strickland faces a conundrum there, too. He has pledged repeatedly not to raise taxes.

‘‘The governor made such strong statements when he was running for office, and really has not backed off those statements: ’If I don’t fix education funding I’ll be a failure,’’’ said Ron Adler, president of the charter school-backing Ohio Coalition for Quality Education. ‘‘I really don’t know what he’ll do.’’