Friday, April 13, 2001

GOP leaders defend plan on schools

Poorer districts may get $800 extra per pupil

By Debra Jasper and Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBUS — Republican leaders staunchly defended their new $1.4 billion school-funding plan on Thursday — saying it would bring fairness to the system by eventually giving poorer school districts across the state as much as $800 extra per pupil.

        That money would come on top of an increase in basic aid to all public schools from $4,294 per pupil this year to $4,814 next year.

        “The goal is for all children, no matter where they grow up, to have the same kinds of resources available to them as wealthier districts,” said state Sen. Jeff Jacobson, R-Phillipsburg, who crafted key aspects of the plan. “This plan means poor districts might be able to offer more intensive-learning classes, provide better books, and attract teachers with higher salaries.”

        Republicans are still arguing privately over how to pay for the plan, however. And although the governor and leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly agree on its provisions, the proposal must still be aired in finance committee hearings this month and then pass both the Senate and the House.

        It will then be sent to the Ohio Supreme Court, which has given legislators a June 15 deadline to overhaul Ohio's school system.

        The court has twice found Ohio's school-funding system unconstitutional, but Mr. Jacobson predicts this time will be different.

        “This plan, for the first time, attempts to hold the state responsible for sharing funding costs,” he said.

        Don Berno, president of the Ohio Expenditure Council, a nonpartisan tax research organization, said the plan will benefit school districts like Mount Healthy, North College Hill and other lower-wealth districts because they will likely be “parity schools.”

        Under the plan, the state will distribute $300 million over the next two years to 480 school districts eligible to receive parity aid. Those districts bring in less tax revenue than lawmakers have determined is needed to properly educate students.

        “It is a substantial increase,” Mr. Berno said.

        Still, the new plan doesn't satisfy the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy, the group that filed the lawsuit. Its members say it falls short in funding classes for special education and gifted students, and doesn't provide enough computers and other technology in grades 6 through 12.

        Some Democrats also cite flaws. State Sen. Eric Fingerhut, D-Cleveland, said the plan bases the cost of an adequate education on standards the legislature has already decided are old and inappropriate. He also criticized Republicans for deciding to wait until the third, fourth and fifth years of the plan to distribute the bulk of parity funds — a total of $950 million — to school districts.

        “My understanding from the court is the inequity problem has to be fixed, they can't say we'll get to that in five years,” he said. “(This plan) is not going to resolve the lawsuit and more important, it's not going to resolve the problems schools are having.”

        As the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, Mr. Fingerhut says he will have plenty of questions about the plan during hearings expected in two weeks. He said too much has been decided by Gov. Bob Taft and Republican leaders in closed-door meetings without input from educators.

        “They are going to try to lock arms and beat back anybody who is running at them,” he said, “But they will wish they'd heard criticisms and comments as they worked on this plan instead of waiting until after it was done.”

        Some educators have adopted a wait-and-see approach. Springboro Community Schools Superintendent David Baker said the success of the parity payments will depend on how the state determines who gets extra aid.

        His district is now under a cap on funding for additional pupils, the result of growing too fast.

        The cap ensures the district does not receive an influx of funds. But it also means for each new student the district only receives $968 instead of the $4,294 the state provides to educate each child.

        “Any new bill that comes out, we need to see that cap taken off. I need more than $968 to educate a child. But unless this new bill includes enough money to remove that cap, we'll just be going back to the voters more often.”

        Dee Fricker, a Cincinnati parent, said funding equity could hurt her daughters' school in Cincinnati's East End.

        “When they look at the poorer districts they have to look at not just income per capita or property value, but the client base those districts serve,” Ms. Fricker said.

        Cincinnati Public Schools likely would not qualify for the parity funding because it is a district with high property values. Spokeswoman Jan Leslie said the district was trying to determine where it would win and lose in the proposed funding fix.

        Cincinnati Federation of Teachers President Rick Beck said the extra $1.4 billion does not sound like enough cash to fix the problem.

        He said the very nature of having to add on a separate piece as the “fix” shows lawmakers still don't know how to find a solution.

        “No one will be doing cartwheels over that,” Mr. Beck said.


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