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Devil still in details of education plan

It is crunch time in more ways than one for the Legislature’s work on House Bill 1, the state operating budget for fiscal years 2010-2011, which must be approved by July 1.

While the House and Senate have been on spring break, many of my colleagues and I have continued to work in committee and in meetings with interested parties to learn more about the bill.

The big news this past week was that the House Democrats unveiled their changes to Governor Strickland’s education funding plan in HB 1.

In previous columns, I have outlined what I believe to be several fatal flaws with the Governor’s education proposal.

In particular, the plan has the almost unbelievable effect of accelerating funding for Ohio’s wealthy school districts at the expense of our state’s poor, rural schools.

Currently, the state’s school funding formula assumes that every school district in Ohio is collecting at least 23 mills in local property taxes, but there are several districts that only raise 20 mills.

The difference between what the state assumes districts are collecting and what they are actually bringing in is what some call “phantom revenue.”

By lowering the millage in the funding formula from 23 to 20 mills in HB 1, the Governor’s education plan would actually provide huge funding increases to many of the wealthiest districts in Ohio.

The Strickland Administration also wrongly counted $922 million in federal stimulus dollars that were earmarked for local school districts in their overall funding formula.

Federal rules require that these funds be spent by specific school districts in the upcoming months and cannot be used to cover ongoing state expenses.

In addition, on top of cutting funding for many of Ohio’s poor, rural school districts, including many schools in the 17th Senate District, the Governor’s plan includes a number of costly new mandates, including adding 20 days to the school year, establishing a 15 to 1 student-teacher ratio and increasing staff levels for nurses and other personnel.

House Democrats announced their changes to Governor Strickland’s education proposal at a press conference on April 16th.

Their plan actually cuts education spending by $113 million over the biennium and phases in the Governor’s funding changes over 10 years.

In other words, my seventh-grader may be through college and my first-grader would be a junior in high school before the plan takes full effect. Not to mention, it will be either eight or four years after Governor Strickland has left office.

By phasing the Governor’s funding changes in over a decade, the House Democrat proposal has evolved into a low-growth continuation budget for education. The idea that this will solve school funding is far-fetched.

It is also important to remember that for the Governor’s education proposal to be phased-in over 10 years, it will have to be adopted by future General Assemblies and future governors. This appears very unlikely.

While House Democrats did improve Governor Strickland’s proposal by reducing the huge funding disparity between wealthy and poor school districts, it is still a fatally flawed plan. Most of the school districts in our region receive increases in the House plan, but they are modest compared to the funding boost several wealthy districts would see once the proposal is fully phased-in.

Additionally, when the House plan is fully phased-in, Plain Local SD in Franklin County would receive a 188.5-percent increase in per-pupil funding compared to Symmes Valley in Lawrence County, which is slated to get a 17.5 percent boost.

The Governor’s education proposal is expected to cost the state between $6 and $8 billion once it is fully phased-in. The question is are we in the 17th District willing to buy into a plan that could lead to much higher taxes and provide less money for poor, rural schools at the same time many of Ohio’s wealthy districts will see triple digit increases in funding? I think not.

Despite my concerns, I look forward to working with House Democrats and Governor Strickland to develop a more equitable education budget. But it is clear that the Governor will have failed to fix school funding in HB 1.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.