Our View: Kasich's bold plan for education raises questions

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Gov. John Kasich prides himself on an outside-the-box approach to government, firmly believing that "thinking big" is what it takes to be a transformational leader.

Not surprisingly, his proposal for an overhaul of school funding is anything but timid, taking aim squarely at one of the biggest shortcomings in the present system, which is funded largely by property taxes: the disparity in income that tends to lift students in wealthier districts to the top while consigning those in poorer districts to the bottom of the academic barrel.

The plan he unveiled Jan. 31 increases funding for poorer districts across the state through a new funding formula that takes into account property values and income levels. Wealthier districts will receive less state support.

"If you are poor, you're going to get more. If you are richer, you're going to get less," was how the governor put it. Had his predecessor, Ted Strickland, proposed a similar plan, cries of "income redistribution" undoubtedly would have been heard.

The plan, dubbed "Achievement Everywhere," proposes bringing all schools up to the tax base level of a district with $250,000 in property value per student -- the 96th percentile of districts statewide -- to ease wide disparities in millage revenues from local levies.

Kasich proposes to spend $15.1 billion on K-12 education over the next two years. The plan sends $1.2 billion more to districts over the biennium than in the last budget, including a nearly 6 percent increase in fiscal year 2014, and 3.2 percent more the next year. No school gets a funding cut next year.

The plan also includes a $300 million "Straight A" fund for grants to districts for innovation and efficiency measures.

"There is no politics in this plan," Kasich said Jan. 31. "We are attempting in this plan to make sure that every student in Ohio, regardless of the kind of a district they come from based on wealth, has an opportunity to compete with a child in a district that has greater wealth. We think that's really important."

It is difficult to argue with that, but there are many unanswered questions. As Senate Education Committee chairwoman Peggy Lehner, a Kettering Republican, said, "The devil is in the details, and we haven't seen all the details yet."

One big question is where the money is going to come from to fund the program. Kasich contends the plan is "fully funded," using more than $7 billion in general revenue and lottery funds each year in the biennium. He also mentions an expansion in vouchers, which have drained resources from public schools in the name of educational choice.

It is unclear if the reform plan actually provides relief from property taxes or if school districts will continue to rely on them for a share of local funding. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled more than a decade ago that using them as the primary means of funding schools is unconstitutional.

Also unmentioned, regrettably, is the need to address consolidation of school districts. Ohio has 613 districts, including many that are in chronic dire financial straits with little hope of attaining stability. Continuing to prop them up in the name of local autonomy makes no economic sense, but mention of consolidation is a political poison pill. Not even Kasich will think that far outside the box.

Kasich's "Achievement Everywhere" will be part of the biennium budget he will sent to the legislature. Hearings will begin immediately, with passage expected by July. The governor is hoping for an "A-plus" on his plan. Time will tell.

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