School funding at heart of Ohio legislative budget debate

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins - Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The way Ohio pays for K-12 education now and in the future is at the heart of debate over the final version of the state’s $75 billion two-year budget.

The budget approved by the GOP-controlled House in April included elements of the bipartisan Fair School Funding Plan developed over more than three years. The goal of that plan was a sustainable funding process lasting several years.

The GOP-majority Ohio Senate ditched that approach and introduced its own plan as part of the budget it’s expected to approve Wednesday.

House and Senate lawmakers must reconcile differences between the two versions by month’s end.

The Senate education plan assumes a $6,110 annual base cost per student. The House plan provides slightly more over the two-year funding cycle, but increases to $7,203 when fully phased in over six years.

Under the House version, a large increase in spending could then lead to cuts in funding down the road, Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, said June 1 when the Senate’s plan was introduced.

The Senate proposal “actually provides more money to local school districts, but it is also more predictable and more sustainable, and that’s why we think it’s a superior product,” Huffman said.

Advocates for the Fair School Funding Plan disagree, and say it does not make sense to ignore the work of both Democrats and Republicans and a broad swath of educators who developed it.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Ohio schoolchildren,” former Democratic state representative John Patterson of Ashtabula, a retired teacher who helped develop the plan, said Tuesday.

He said the plan allows for “predictability for school districts so they can provide the programming to the best of our abilities that allows for the utmost opportunities for all of our children.”

The House plan also has the backing of both major Ohio teachers unions, the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teacher, who on Wednesday called on Senate lawmakers to adopt the plan’s elements.

The Senate’s school-funding proposal would also require that the state, not individual districts, pay charter schools directly for the first time. In addition, the legislation allows public school districts to operate an online school for students, including providing free access to the internet and a computer.

That measure was an outcome of districts developing online systems during the coronavirus pandemic and wanting to continue that option, said Senate Finance Chairman Matt Dolan.

The Senate version of the budget also:

—Provides an across-the-board personal income tax cut of 5%.

—Raises the eligibility level for poor families accessing publicly funded day care from those making 130% of the federal poverty level to 142%, and provides $50 million to discount co-payments for such day care. The Senate plan also eliminates the requirement that day cares achieve a quality of care rating to be listed in the state system. Child care advocates say that change will hurt the quality of care available for Ohioans who need the publicly funded option.

—Shields names collected through the state’s Vax-a-Million lottery incentive program from the state’s open records law.

—Mandates that physicians who provide back-up coverage at local hospitals as part of required patient-transfer agreements with abortion clinics must practice within 25 miles (40 kilometers) of the clinics.

— Requires that candidates for chief justice or justice of the Ohio Supreme Court and for appeals court judicial seats must appear on the general election ballot with a political party designation. Partisan designations are not permitted under current law.

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press