Legislators pushing for education funding before end of general assembly

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Members on both sides of the Ohio legislature are trying to get changes to school funding formulas and testing metrics to stick before the end of the current General Assembly.

House representatives are moving forward with legislation they say will finally address concerns about the state’s K-12 funding formula, the topic of a decades-old decision by the Ohio Supreme Court.

State Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, says House Bill 305 is moving forward with “tweaks” and other suggestions made by school districts and state education officials, and he says Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, is committed to bringing the bill to the floor before the end of this year’s House business.

“We have been in very close contact with Speaker Cupp, and he has entrusted me and (co-sponsor state Rep. Gary Scherer, R-Circleville) with continuing the research on the bill,” Patterson told the Capital Journal.

As state representatives figure out school funding, state senators are attempting to extend certain standards set at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ohio.

At the end of March, the General Assembly agreed on an omnibus bill that not only put a freeze on EdChoice private school voucher levels, but also waived state testing and report cards for the 2019-2020 school year.

State testing — such as reading and math proficiency exams — are used to gauge the readiness of students to advance to another grade. State report cards grade the school districts and schools on their success rates, and they are used as a metric to determine the state’s share of district funding.

When the House passed the Senate’s bill, then-Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said putting the usual metrics on hold made sense as the schools figured out the next steps in the pandemic.

“When you look at the report cards, it’s just an unfair situation to try to determine how well a school has done or not done with its students when you’re under this situation,” Householder said.

With Senate Bill 358, state Sens. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, and Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, hope to continue the same easing of testing.

In a hearing on the bill last week, Senate Education Committee chair, state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, reminded education officials and committee members that a blanket waiver on testing won’t happen, because federal testing measures are still expected to go on.

Despite the fact that the state doesn’t expect a waiver of federal testing, Lehner said the committee is attempting to work on the impact testing has on the state’s schools.

“We would still be using those federally mandated tests, we would just change what we want out of them,” Lehner said.

In doing so, Lehner mentioned a possible strategy of not asking for a waiver of federal testing, instead asking for a waiver “to remove the accountability piece” from the tests. The only obstacle in that strategy is the requirement from federal education officials that the state still “differentiate” schools in terms of performance, for example.

“I’m just trying to look for a magical thing that’s not ranking,” Lehner said. “I hate ranking, I think ranking is one of the most ridiculous things we do.”

Fedor said she wishes the legislature could have acted on the issues before the beginning of the school year. But now that adjustments have been made in school districts, such as increased technological access and adaptive learning standards, she wants to see the advances continue.

“This is a whole new learning environment,” Fedor told the Capital Journal. “We have to build upon these practices that may be better than before, and I’m very interested in modernizing the education world to match the working world.”

The bill will inevitably include amendments, Fedor said, but she hopes to have amendments inserted in the bill by the time Senate meets again for a full session on October 14.

She said through the process attention must be paid to disadvantaged students, along with those in need of special education, two groups that have arguably seen the most impact during the learning changes forced by COVID-19. With improved infrastructure and communication between districts and parents, the potential is there.

“We’ve equalized the playing field, not completely, but more than we ever had,” Fedor said.

Just as the COVID-19 extension bill seeks to help those most severely impacted by the pandemic’s effects on education, the House school funding bill still prioritizes economically disadvantaged districts and individual students.

Patterson said despite the revisions and continuing research going into the bill, the first funding made available under HB 305 would go to those needing it most.

“The school funding formula is such a complex issues, if you make tweaks in one area, you have to see how it ripples out,” Patterson said. “But we recognize the need to assist those students.”

Patterson said he and Scherer met immediately following the House session last week to “consolidate the ideas” they plan to run past the speaker.

The authors of the bill want to hold informal hearings in the primary and secondary education subcommittee, which Patterson chairs, in preparation for consideration by the full House Finance Committee. A timeline still hasn’t been established for hearings.

The legislators are still running simulations, testing the bill’s language against real-time school district funding models and the ability for districts to raise their own share of the operating budget.

“We want to make sure what we’re doing is defensible, is data-driven, and is good for Ohio’s children,” Patterson said.

Patterson said the issues between the two bills — testing, report cards and school funding — are all interrelated and it’s important that the issues be treated with attention and consistency, no matter how long it takes to find solutions.

“We’re trying to turn around a large ocean liner here, and it’s going to take some time,” Patterson said.

Neither Cupp nor Scherer were available for comment when asked by the Capital Journal.

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