Gov. John Kasich's budget proposal, House Bill 59, is prompting education leaders throughout Ohio to dissect the ramifications of a new school funding formula.
The plan, coiled within his budget package and dubbed "Achievement Everywhere," showcases some handy line-item work. It also displays an uncanny disavowal of the governor's actions in support of last November's Issue 107, the Cleveland school district's four-year, $15 million levy.
Cleveland taxpayers are now each tossing an additional $300 on average into the district each year (at least $75 million in total annually), so the proposed budget came as a startling turnaround. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District stands to lose a potential $75 million two years from now. Ongoing cuts like this - and a sharp focus on the area's charter schools - blunt the taxpayer support that was shown in last fall's election.
Kasich shook a lot of hands in an image-laden support drive prior to Issue 107's passage. Now his handiwork is sending a distinctly different message to voters and community members: Foot the bill!
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District finds itself at a crossroads manufactured in no small part by Kasich, Mayor Frank Jackson and district CEO Eric Gordon. It is a lofty step toward a much different future.
Via Statehouse approval, the Cleveland Transformation Plan calls for "dramatically increased autonomy and flexibility for the district and its schools, the modernization of employment practices and increased incentives for district and charter schools partnerships." It's a plan balanced on the backs of (mostly approving) taxpaying voters, all while finding far less sturdy footing from the once grandstanding efforts of Kasich and Co.
With teeming chaos on the balance sheets (millions in fresh tax revenue, millions in state funding cuts), the Plan remains a fairly vague roadmap.
In 1997, the state legislature granted district oversight authority to Jackson, who can appoint school board members, hire the CEO and, essentially, control the schools. He worked hard over the past several years to ensure passage of House Bill 525, which authorized the Plan. Kasich, of course, lent his support throughout the process.
What's clear now is that the future of the Cleveland Plan rests entirely in the hands of the local tax base. The state legislators that helped grant the process and push it forward are not stepping up to ensure financial success.
The Plan also spawned the Transformation Alliance, a panel that oversees and sponsors charter schools throughout the district. It's a panel that in part includes representatives from the Cleveland school system itself. And it's a key aspect of the future that lay ahead. If any education reform is going to be enacted - as decreed time and time again, such as in landmark Ohio Supreme Court cases - the charter school community is sure to have a strong foothold in it. With increased funding going to charters and decreased funding going toward traditional public school systems, one element of the Cleveland Transformation Plan becomes very significant: "...increased incentives for district and charter schools partnerships." Like the ballyhoo for shared resources and the crossing of political lines, the outcomes of this process remain hazy.
But built into a levy campaign that began in earnest over the past two years (and that has been fomenting for more than a decade) is a glimmer of hope for real accountability.
Last year, Kasich was seen often prattling on about the strengths of Cleveland's future with Gordon and Jackson in tow. The trio helped usher in the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools. They were, indeed, highly visible in and around Cleveland last year and they, yes, shook a lot of hands.
Following the passage of House BIll 525, which set the Cleveland Plan in motion, the district began yammering away on the need for a 15-mill operating levy. It was approved by a 57-43 margin in November.
Part of that new money will also be funnelled toward the district's dozens of charter schools. In all, it's a solid chunk of change for a district with a rough history - both in the classroom and in the voting booth.
The levy is set to expire after four years, offering a built-in timeframe for accountability. The district is expected to return to the voters at that time for what will amount to a vote of confidence.
The problem that Cleveland's approximately 44,000 students are now facing - an ongoing decrease in state aid - is mirrored across many of Ohio's 615 school districts. Earlier this month, more than 100 superintendents from the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools gathered in Columbus to voice their collective concern. The coalition spans much of southern and eastern Ohio, but the sentiment is statewide.
Indeed, the disparity in how Kasich has outlined his approach to education funding is blatant. In communities like Cleveland and its school district, the problem becomes even clearer.
Kasich's education plan is being marketed as a "per pupil" calculation, leaning on the calls from many for state money to follow the children. The result comes in at around $5,000 per student, whether he or she is attending a public or charter school. (Add in additional funding for gifted students or those who are economically disadvantaged or have special needs. Charter schools also get an extra $100 per student for capital expenditures.) In all, however, that's less than the approximately $5,700 per pupil the last biennial budget offered.
And in sort of a strange twist of the numbers, the outline tends to allocate more money to richer districts and less money to poorer districts.
Education policy advisor Barbara Mattei-Smith kinda summed up the Statehouse magic in describing the Olentangy School District as "property poor" Feb. 13. Curiously enough, Olentangy ranks as the richest public school district in the state.
So there's the headspace we're in.
The core tenet of Kasich's plan was to rid districts of property wealth disparities and allow the state to take care of the differences in millage. Interestingly, the districts that are most capable of raising substantial millage are the ones that make out the best in this new plan.
According to 2010 tax returns, Cleveland pulls a median income of $23,095, making it one of the poorest districts in Ohio. Cleveland has long garnered massive amounts of state funding; it's the product of being a district with sparse wealth and high enrollment figures.
But the thrust of the current proposal is that Kasich said that more money would flow toward the neediest districts. Cleveland, in many ways, remains among the state's neediest districts. So when the numbers came out and superintendents took a closer look with anticipations high, there was a collective huh? scrawled across the Cleveland line item.
In a meeting of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee, Mattei-Smith alluded to Cleveland's declining enrollment as a principle element of the flat-funding approach. She implied that, given the drooping numbers, the state guarantee of not lowering funding may not be guaranteed for much longer. (Enrollment hovers around 44,000 these days - a far cry from the nearly 80,000 as recently as 1999.)
Mattei-Smith offered the typical refrain and said the district will have to gut personnel and slash programming costs even more before any semblance of a state funding increase will become reality. All this comes on top of Kasich's first budget cutting Cleveland schools to the tune of $55 million.
Right: After his glad-handing and hand-shaking, all of which he's really great at, Kasich dropped the ball with his measly budget proposal earlier this year.
This time around, Cleveland's flat funding (bottoming out around $404 million) is mirrored with plateaus in nearly half of the state's school districts. In nearly every case, they are school districts that got caught on the wrong end of the ax during Kasich's first budget cycle.
Going forward, districts are encouraged to compete for $300 million in "Straight A" innovation grant funding that Kasich has set aside to continue studying shifts in educational structure and money-saving ideas. "I think [it] is the single most important element for change in this formula," Michael Sawyers, acting superintendent of public instruction in Ohio, said during a public meeting following the news. "I understand that change is hard and sometimes change is expensive, but change is necessary for the good of our children."
State report card data shows that the district's performance has been steadily improving, though most categories, like reading and math achievement at every grade level, remain well below the state average.
On Jan. 31, when Kasich unveiled the plan, he stressed that no district would receive less money than it had in the previous budget cycle. It was a bold claim and the applause was ravenous.
To wit: "No school district will receive less money than last year," he said.
The numbers can be skewed any which way to make a point now, but the fact is that the Cleveland Metropolitan School District will garner less money than in the past, while area charter schools pick up bigger bucks. The backdrop to this conversation is, of course, the massive influx of property tax revenue that the district will earn for the next four years and what that means for the short- and long-term.
The budget must be signed into law by June 30. Deliberations and voting will take place sometime along a mostly fluid timeline between now and then. As it stands, Kasich's budget proposal remains just that: a proposed formula for redefining the state's role in local education.
Cleveland's school district is comprised of more charter schools - 62 of them, comprising about 14,000 students - than most others in the state. And the budget proposal on the table expands on a funding trend that's grown in Ohio for awhile now.
Kasich and House Speaker Bill Batchelder - and myriad other stakeholders - sport raging hard-ons for charter schools throughout the state. And a growing level of support for charters is driving the new formula Kasich is touting via the budget.
For instance, per-pupil money sent to a particular school district is diverted to a charter school if and when a student elects to attend a charter school. That much wasn't really highlighted when Kasich showcased his budget estimates. Funding to districts appeared as a bit of a lump sum line item, with no district-charter ratio.
To flesh out the numbers, that means another $4.9 million is slashed from the school system's coffers. That's on top of that aforementioned $75 million set to drop within the next two years.
It's the "follow the student" paradigm at play.
The charter schools in Cleveland get mixed reviews from community members and the Ohio Department of Education alike. The latter slapped nearly one-third of the schools with a D or an F on recent report cards. (The district itself has repeatedly garnered a stately F, as well, landing it the "academic emergency" designation).
A recent analysis from the Legislative Service Commission, the state's nonpartisan research offshoot, points out that charters across Ohio will collectively pick up $34.8 million more from the state. Quite the leap, especially when compared against the public school district backdrop. (Kasich's camp shrugged off the number.)
Charter schools, meanwhile, are entirely state-funded entities. They don't pick up any residue from property tax millage. If Kasich's budget is to be seen as a step toward any sense of reform, charter schools are to be the focal point of his work.
Back in the public school system, however, is the Cleveland Plan in good hands? As good as the city's residents wish, it would seem. The push for a greater public school system is certainly more pronounced and visible than ever before. And like most of Cleveland's successes, it's sure to be a hard-won fight that plays out on the ground, rather than at the Statehouse.