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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ohio Department of Education Turns Political, Misleads Public

I came across something truly concerning the other day as I flipped around on the Ohio Department of Education website. It was a page that seemed really odd to me. Something called "Overview of School Funding."

Here's the page:

"Next year, the State of Ohio will spend more on primary and secondary education than at any point in state history. FY 2015, State General Revenue Fund and Lottery Profit spending for primary and secondary education will exceed FY 2010 funding levels by $1.3 billion, or 17.8 percent. Even including one time federal-stimulus funding, TPP/KwH reimbursements, and property tax relief, FY 2015 funding levels will exceed FY 2010 funding levels by $317.8 million, or 3.3 percent.
The following chart discusses the elements typically associated with primary and secondary education funding in the State of Ohio.

How School Funding is Distributed

Public school districts use a combination of state funds, local sources such as property taxes (and in some cases income taxes) and federal funds.
The amount of state funds that a district receives is based on a formula that takes into account the student enrollment and the property wealth of the district.

About School Funding

The Department of Education’s General Revenue Fund budget represents the largest component of primary and secondary education.
These funds, along with profits from the Ohio Lottery are used to fund Ohio’s 612 public school districts, 49 joint vocational school districts, and approximately 370 public community schools. They also fund the activities of the Ohio Department of Education, including funding for early childhood education, pre-school special education, assessments, and the A-F report card.
In addition to state aid through the foundation program, many school districts receive reimbursements payments for lost property tax revenue caused by the phase out of the general business tangible personal property tax (TPP) and the reduction of property tax assessments rates on utility property (KwH). Finally, the state pays 10% of locally levied property taxes for residential and agricultural real property owners and an additional 2.5% for homeowners and represents property tax relief to individual property taxpayers in Ohio."
It may not seem weird to you at first, that is until you see the comparison years. Why is the Ohio Department of Education choosing to compare the last two budgets administered by John Kasich with the last one administered by Ted Strickland? I mean, that's a pretty random comparison, isn't it?

If this is an "Overview of School Funding", why not show the historic levels of funding since 1994? I mean school funding didn't start in 2010, did it? The department has the data to do that. However, it would show that the 2010-2011 school year was the only one on record where more state than local funding went into schools. And perhaps that's not fitting the narrative the page is trying to create.

Interestingly, the department removed $2 billion this year from what it had previously considered local revenue and called it "other non-tax", apparently trying to make it seem like more state than local money goes to schools. However, the "other non-tax" category was considered local revenue every year since 1994, so just add it to the local revenue category for the 2012-2013 data to get the true state-local makeup. 

Why is the department so emphatic about the "historic" levels of funding?

Perhaps because it appears this is a brand-new comparison and funding defense. According to the Wayback Machine (which traces website histories), there are 8 times in 2013 and twice in 2014 that the machine archived the website containing the "Overview of School Funding" page. The dates were June 8 and 15, July 13, August 20 and 31 and September 12. March 26 and 27 of this year were also archived. Here is the complete page on each of those dates:

Overview of School Funding

The funding of public elementary and secondary education in Ohio is a joint effort between the state and local school districts. 
Public school districts use a combination of state funds, local sources such as property taxes (and in some cases income taxes) and federal funds.
The amount of state funds that a district receives is based on a formula that takes into account the student enrollment and the property wealth of the district.
What followed were links to the most frequently requested reports.
That's it. No comparison with any prior years. No emphatic defense of current budgetary priorities. Nothing. Simple. Straight forward and accurate. And you couldn't even find it easily. You had to click through a couple pages to find it. 
Now, the Overview is on the Finance and Funding homepage and is much easier to access.
So, why is the "Overview of State Funding" page so different today? Could it be because the Governor employed the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction prior to his "appointment" as State Superintendent? Or perhaps that Kasich is tired of people repeating the fact that he has removed $515 million from Ohio's public school kids in direct aid payments compared with his predecessor?
Is it a mistake or happenstance that the page appears to have been updated on May 2, which was just a bit before his opponent, Ed Fitzgerald, announced a universal pre-school initiative in which he hammered Kasich on his education cuts?
Could it be because this is an election year?
What is most disturbing about his whole episode is that the Department is including education funding that has never, I repeat, never been seriously considered part of the state share of funding discussion (though believe me, many politicians have tried making these arguments before). 
For example, they are using over $1 billion in "property tax relief" as school funding. There is not a single dollar, that's right, not $1 more that goes to schools because of this funding pot. All the tax relief does is allow property taxpayers a small break on their property tax bill. So the district will still get $100 from local property taxes, for example, but instead of all of it coming from property owners, $88.50 will come from property owners and $12.50 will come from the state. But not a single additional dollar will go into the schools because of that chunk. Oh, and starting in November, the state stopped picking up that $12.50 for new levies. So there's that, yet, surprisingly, there's no mention of that change on the Overview page.
Next is the lottery money. First of all, the reason the lottery money is up about $250 million a year is because Kasich allowed Video Lottery Terminals at racetracks -- an idea put forward by Gov. Strickland in 2009, which was summarily opposed by Kasich's legislative allies at the time. Second of all, Lottery money is included in the state direct payment district-by-district runs generated by Kasich and his legislative allies -- runs that are included in this spreadsheet showing the $515 million cut.
Finally, the fact that the department is putting the funding baseline below what State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars provided to districts in the 10-11 budget suggests beyond much doubt that this ODE Overview is nothing less than an Ohio Republican Party political document.
Just so everyone understands this again: SFSF money was contained within the 2009 Stimulus Bill, but it was not stimulus! It was meant to make up the difference between what states spent in prior years and what the recession would allow them to spend in 2009. This was not money on top of what we were already spending; it was money meant to allow us to spend what we had been spending in previous years. The feds required states to run the money through the states' funding formulas. It was never meant to serve as an excuse to cut $900 million from kids. Yet that's exactly what Ohio legislators have done, arguing over and over that SFSF money should not be included in any comparative calculation.
But the fact is this: districts received that money in the 09-10 and 10-11 school years. They were promised by me and others that the money would be replaced by state funds when tax receipts returned to normal levels. Importantly, they were told not to expect any replacement of the true federal education funding stimulus from 2009 -- additional Title I and IDEA payments.
However, a new legislature came in and immediately called SFSF "stimulus", thereby justifying removal of about $900 million in funding that we had been spending prior to the recession!
The baseline considered by serious Ohio education finance analysts has always included SFSF for this reason. Yet ODE has now taken the Ohio Republican talking point and put it on a web page that -- until this election year -- was bland and banal, which was exactly what it should be.

Once you get rid of the non-direct payment portions of the new Overview page (lottery and "property tax relief"), what you see is the state is spending $524 million less over the FY14-15 budget than it spent over the FY10-11 budget -- just about what the state runs indicated in this spreadsheet.

And don't forget this either: That ALL spending is up under Kasich. However, the state's relative spending on education is way down. If the state spent the same percentage of its all funds budget on education today that it did in the budget prior to Kasich, there would be $1.3 billion more for kids.
It is no secret in Ohio education circles that ODE has been shedding staff like the Hulk sheds henchmen (sorry, I have a 5-year-old comic book reader in my house!). There is little question that politicizing ODE has contributed to this exodus. I feel for the true professionals at the Department who are being told to do things they've never been asked to do before, all in the name of misleading the public into thinking this Governor has increased money for education, when everyone knows he hasn't.
It can't be easy working in that environment. 
ODE should start improving the work environment by taking down that webpage and just hand it over to the Ohio Republican Party so it can be placed where it belongs -- on a site that is trying to convince people to vote for someone, not a site that's supposed to provide unassailable data for the public.
After all, it is the public whose dollars are paying for this.

And to those who think I'm blowing hot air, or trying to stick it to Republicans or something, all I ask is you do one thing: Ask the Ohio Department of Education to show you the district-by-district simulations of direct payments made by the state to districts for all these pots of money. See what's produced for the lottery and property tax relief pots -- the pots that allow ODE to make the claim that more money is going to schools now than before.

Then ask about my motives.