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A report from an Ohio think tank examined the new budget changes and private school voucher impacts on public schools over the last year.
Research from Policy Matters Ohio said divestments from public schools at the state level “hurt public school students everywhere – especially those in rural counties.”
Furthering study of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on education, Policy Matters’ Tanisha Pruitt and Cassie Mohr said those pandemic effects combined with “Ohio’s legacy of inadequate, inequitable funding” have “weakened the role school plays as a foundational public institution.”
Ohio was ranked 21st in a U.S. News & World Report on K-12 education and 46th in an EdWeek ranking of equitable distribution of education funding, both of which were cited as part of the 2023 report.
“Ohio’s students deserve a world-class education, including safe and well-resourced schools that are staffed by teachers who are well trained and fairly paid,” Pruitt and Mohr wrote.
The new report also confirmed what advocates have repeatedly noted over the years that the public school funding model has been debated — that the vast majority of Ohio students are enrolled in public schools.
Of the nearly 2 million students enrolled in K-12 education in Ohio, 88.6% are in public schools, and 8.8% are in private schools, while 2.7% are home-schooled.
Private school vouchers saw a significant change in Ohio’s most recent two-year budget this summer, when legislators opened the state-paid subsidies to 450% of the federal poverty level, nearly universal eligibility.
But also included in the budget was another phase-in of the Fair School Funding Plan, a six-year effort to dive into the real cost of funding public school students, and fund the schools on an individual basis based on their needs.
“When fully implemented, the six-year FSFP will correct the over-reliance on local property taxes, eliminate funding caps on districts, and base funding on per-pupil cost estimates that more accurately reflect what it takes to educate a diverse student population,” the report stated.
Policy Matters’ report focused largely on public schools, where they found a student population that is “somewhat more racially diverse than the state overall” with a makeup that is 16.4% Black versus the 13.3% population in the state overall, and serving a large population of more than 800,000 who are considered economically disadvantaged.
Pruitt and Mohr remained skeptical of the ultimate success of the FSFP, however, as legislators have “only incrementally moved funding through the formula.”
“If legislators follow through on their promise to fully realize the FSFP by 2026, they will be helping every public school in the state to be equitably funded, and helping ensure that we live in a state where every child has what they need to succeed in school and after graduation,” the report stated.
Senate President Matt Huffman has commented in the past that he wouldn’t support funding more than two years at a time, to avoid saddling future General Assemblies with budget items with which they may not agree.
The constraints of COVID had their effect on teachers as well, but even outside of the pandemic education methods, educators still face pressures, according to the 2023 report.
“Teachers recently have experienced a rash of targeted political campaigns to stoke division by denying the identities of trans and nonbinary students, as well as censoring what teachers are allowed to teach in the classroom,” Pruitt and Mohr wrote.
Beyond that, compensation levels have not kept up over the years, with the Ohio Department of Education showing an average annual salary of $69,130 for an Ohio teacher in the 2022-2023 school year. That amounts to a decrease of more than 6% from the 2018-2019 school year, according to the new Policy Matters research.
“These factors contribute to one of the most significant problems facing Ohio schools today: too many have too few teachers to give our kids the education they deserve,” according to Pruitt and Mohr.
The state has also seen a dip in newly licensed teachers as well, with more than 9,000 teachers leaving their jobs in 2021, but only 5,388 earning a new license.
“Recruitment declines can be attributed to low pay, poor working conditions and other economic factors,” researchers found. New teachers are paid less, and face mounting student loans on top of a salary that is often less than fellow graduates in other professions, they said.
But licensure was addressed in the budget, with a clause allowing substitutes to have one-year temporary substitute teaching license which could increase the number of subs, and some members of the military could obtain a “military educator license.”
“While these changes have the potential to boost our educators workforce, they weaken teacher training requirements, which could negatively affect the quality of classroom education, especially in high-poverty schools that already grapple with recruiting and retaining highly qualified educators,” Policy Matters researchers argued.
The state needs to improve the recruitment methods, according to the report. It could use models like the one pursued by Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent Iranetta Wright, who pledged to recruit more teachers who matched the demographics of her school, but also keep teachers from being saddled with debt by increasing funding for grant programs and teacher residency programs.
For the teachers who are in schools, state testing can be a significant part of the school year, and despite their best efforts, inequities can shine through in even the standardized assessments for subjects like math and reading.
A 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed fourth and eighth graders in the state “were not statistically different from the national average,” according to Pruitt and Mohr, and Ohio was ranked 21st in a U.S. News & World Report ranking on pre-K-12 education.
“However, these statewide metrics can mask a high degree of variability among districts, schools and student populations, with predictable disparities,” Policy Matters stated in their 2023 report.
Disparities among English Language Arts and math scores, for example, don’t have a single cause, researchers found, but “inequities in school funding track closely with gaps in academic achievement.”
An analysis of test scores and categories from the Ohio Department of Education showed disparities among student races, but also showed a universal trend that economically disadvantaged students “are more likely to live in school districts with concentrations of poverty – including in rural and Appalachian counties – where property-value-based school funding shortchanges them,” the researchers found.
In terms of kindergarten readiness, COVID had a negative impact, and in the 2022-23 school year, Ohio’s kindergarten-bound students showed the lowest rate of readiness since 2014, when the state began using a Kindergarten Readiness Assessment.
“A dropoff in kindergarten readiness was likely inevitable after COVID; Ohio needs to make significant investments in early childhood education to begin recovery,” Pruitt and Mohr said in their analysis.
The researchers criticized legislative priorities like restructuring the Ohio Department of Education, something that is now being fought over in court. But other curricular level efforts, like one to change the social studies lessons in schools and another that would bar teachers from teaching “any oral or written instruction, presentation, image or description of sexual concepts or gender ideology,” don’t fall under improvements, according to Pruitt and Mohr’s analysis.
The recommendations they do hope will be implemented include the full implementation of the Fair School Funding Plan, elimination of the private school vouchers at universal eligibility levels, better pay for teachers and the creation of a “pathway to becoming an educator” that helps recruit teachers of diverse backgrounds.
“More funding should be dedicated to attracting new educators, especially from underrepresented populations, while ensuring the teachers coming out of these programs are fully qualified and prepared to give our kids the best education possible,” the researchers concluded.