Bilinovich: Ohio’s flawed public education system, and what to do about it

Beau Bilinovich, Staff Columnist

Last December, the Ohio House of Representatives passed House Bill 305, a long-awaited initiative to revamp how public schools are funded throughout the state. Due to the egregiously inadequate current method, the bill passed overwhelmingly with an 84-8 vote. Now, it is waiting in the Senate, yet to see debate; Senate Republicans want the bill to be part of the budget process.

There is hope, however.

The bill was reintroduced as House Bill 1 in February, just in time for Governor DeWine to announce his budget. Since it is being considered a budget item, there is more hope that it will pass in the Senate and be signed into law by DeWine.

But what exactly is the issue with Ohio’s public education system?

That question was answered more than 20 years ago by the Ohio Supreme Court in DeRolph v. State of Ohio. The court found that the primary method of funding public schools through property taxes violated the Ohio Constitution by “failing to provide for a thorough and efficient system of common schools.” In other words, property taxes are an unfair and inequitable method of funding public education.

Despite this ruling, the amount of funding a district receives is still drastically affected by the property values in that district. For example, if the property values in District A are lower than in District B, then the tax revenue collected will be lower; as a result, District A has less money to fund its schools compared to District B. So, in other words, rich areas have better schools than poor areas. 

It is easy to see how this leads to other problems. Less money to fund schools means less money for educational resources such as books; less money to pay already underpaid teachers; less money for social services. Less money means students and teachers suffer.

Rural districts, where poverty is high, have lower test scores and lower student preparedness for college compared to urban districts. This disparity leads to a large gap in educational achievement. A student going to a rural school thus is disadvantaged compared to an urban student.

Overall, Ohio ranks 28th in education, with 64% of fourth-grade students not proficient in reading, 62% of eight-grade students proficient in math and 20% of high school students who do not graduate on time.

Teachers also should be part of the conversation. As a result of equal school funding, teacher salaries can vary considerably depending on the school district and where it is located. Rural teachers generally are paid less than urban teachers, a trend similar to the gap between rural and urban students.

These inequalities plague Ohio’s public schools. A solution is needed now, and this is where the new House bills come in.

The proposed plan is to establish a mandatory, base cost for education that is available to all school districts. In addition to this base cost, more money can be devoted to areas of high poverty and areas where more resources are needed, such as for special education.

The new plan also takes into account income levels and uses income taxes in addition to property taxes to fund schools. As a result, funding won’t be unequally distributed between areas of high and low property values.

If either bill passes, students and teachers will benefit greatly. As many studies have concluded, more equitable funding leads to more equitable outcomes for students. Educational gaps narrow and graduation rates increase.

A good education system is crucial for students. For too long, adequate public education has not been the reality in Ohio. Success and achievement are determined by factors that students have no control over. For too long, our government has failed them.

But now there is hope. Change can—and should—be made, if students are to see success. Ohio has the opportunity to do more for its school districts and struggling communities. The solution is right in front of our legislators. Now they have to act.