Redistricting: Education funding hangs in balance with unbalanced districts

By: - August 18, 2021 12:55 am

Stock photo from Getty Images.

The redrawing of legislative maps has an impact on where you go to vote and who to call at the Ohio Statehouse, but it also determines the support students get when they go to school, and what teachers can and can’t do in their classrooms. So say members of teachers unions and education advocates across the state as the process of redistricting continues.

“When you repress opportunity in public schools, you are repressing equal opportunity in society,” said Susie Kaeser, lead education specialist for the Ohio chapter of the League of Women Voters.

What gerrymandering has done to education policy is brought dramatic ideological differences in how education should be provided, especially in terms of private schools versus public schools, education officials say.

With redrawn districts that provide better representation for both sides of the political and ideological aisle, Ohio Federation of Teachers president Melissa Cropper said the state can be more informed on how school districts are doing and what their needs are.

The impact of legislative representation is felt at the budgetary level in education’s funding haul from the state, but also in the education policies enacted by the General Assembly.

“The way they are impacted, it comes down to the amount of testing that’s done in the classroom, the ability to have honest discussions with students in your classroom,” Cropper said.

Cropper points to a state Senate-passed bill that changes the way state school report cards are conducted and allows parents to opt out of college admissions testing, and current pushes to limit classroom discussion on race’s role in society as ways in which the legislature determines the landscape of a school district. The COVID-19 pandemic also brought up discussions in the Statehouse on the efficacy of teacher evaluations amid a challenging teaching year.

“Almost anything that a teacher does in a classroom is shaped by the legislature,” Cropper said.

What gerrymandering has done to education policy is brought dramatic ideological differences in how education should be provided, especially in terms of private schools versus public schools, education officials say.

Private school funding from the state has risen, despite the vast majority of students — and therefore the vast majority of the future voting public — attending public schools.

“We need to make sure that we are fairly representing our districts, fairly representing the 90% of students in the state who attend public schools,” Cropper said.

Kaeser said she’s never felt as much urgency as she does now to push Ohioans to get to know the legislative system and how it affects school funding and privatization efforts, including the EdChoice private school voucher program.

“There is a divide over where the priorities should be, in public versus private education,” Kaeser said. “It’s become partisan and that’s really affected by gerrymandering.”

The public school versus private school debate has been raging on for decades, with a major shift in the battle occurring 30 years ago, when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in DeRolph v. State of Ohio that the state was not properly funding public education in Ohio. The court said the imbalance coming from property tax reliance in school funding made inequity a problem for the entire state.

Stephen Dyer, a former state legislature and now director of government relations, communications and marketing for the Ohio Education Association, said there was a “narrowing” of the state and local share of public education funding before and during the DeRolph case. After the case was decided (though it had to be decided multiple times by the state’s highest court), Ohio saw increases in public school support.

What was also happening after the DeRolph case was a changing of the guard, and periods where the state legislature and governor’s office had more evenly distributed party lines, unlike the Republican supermajority that is now in Statehouse.

“Under one party control, you saw flat funding to public schools and massive funding to private schools and private school vouchers,” Dyer said. “Divided government gets you more state funding.”

With plenty of support in the General Assembly for private school funding, and even one push to allow funding to go with each individual student, rather than the district, education officials fear more funding pushes that would weaken the public system and strengthen private schools.

While the state’s most recent budget includes an overhaul of the public school funding system that some have said is as close to a resolution to the DeRolph case as Ohio has ever seen, the budget also included an increase to the EdChoice voucher system, which will now be funded directly by the state at $5,500 per pupil for K-8 students and $7,500 per pupil for high school grades.

Under the new public school funding plan, each public school district’s per pupil average will be a little different based on their own financial status, but the statewide average included in the budget amounts to $7,202 per pupil.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission is holding public hearings to hear from the public before they finalize legislative and congressional maps. The dates, times and locations can be found here.



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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.