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School funding at heart of Ohio legislative budget debate

June 9, 2021 GMT
Ohio Senate Finance Chairman Matt Dolan, a Republican from Chagrin Falls, discusses details of the Senate version of the state's $75 billion budget after passage by the Finance Committee, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Dolan said the budget helps Ohioans across the state by providing a 5% tax cut, more education funding, money for publicly funded child care, and funding for rape crisis and domestic violence centers and Boys Girls clubs and YMCAs, among other measures. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)
Ohio Senate Finance Chairman Matt Dolan, a Republican from Chagrin Falls, discusses details of the Senate version of the state's $75 billion budget after passage by the Finance Committee, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Dolan said the budget helps Ohioans across the state by providing a 5% tax cut, more education funding, money for publicly funded child care, and funding for rape crisis and domestic violence centers and Boys Girls clubs and YMCAs, among other measures. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The way Ohio pays for K-12 education now and in the future is at the heart of debate over the final version of the state’s $75 billion two-year budget.

The budget approved by the GOP-controlled House in April included elements of the bipartisan Fair School Funding Plan developed over more than three years. The goal of that plan was a sustainable funding process lasting several years.

The GOP-majority Ohio Senate ditched that approach and introduced its own plan as part of the budget, which it passed along partisan lines Wednesday.

House and Senate lawmakers must reconcile differences between the two versions by month’s end.

The Senate education plan assumes a $6,110 annual base cost per student. The House plan provides slightly more over the two-year funding cycle, but increases to $7,203 when fully phased in over six years.

The Senate plan builds on the work done to create the Fair School Funding Plan, but avoids uncontrolled spending in future years, Senate Finance Chairman Matt Dolan said Wednesday during debate over the budget. The Senate version provides $232 million more than the House version.

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The priorities laid out by the Fair School Funding Plan were to create “a reliable, predictable and rational plan,” Dolan said. “The plan we’re putting forward today does that.”

That predictability will be the basis of any agreement the Senate reaches with the House, said Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican.

Another benefit of the Senate education plan was to restore $650 million in funding to specifically address non-academic needs of children, especially poor students, through social services, said Sen. Louis Blessing III, a Cincinnati Republican.

Senate Democrats unsuccessfully urged their Republican colleagues to return to the House funding plan.

The GOP Senate education plan “really fails to address a historic opportunity that we have now to try to deal with, in a fair and equitable and adequate way, the funding over education,” said Sen. Vernon Sykes of Akron, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.

Advocates for the Fair School Funding Plan say it does not make sense to ignore the work of both Democrats and Republicans and a broad swath of educators who developed it.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Ohio schoolchildren,” former Democratic state representative John Patterson of Ashtabula, a retired teacher who helped develop the plan, said Tuesday.

He said the plan allows for “predictability for school districts so they can provide the programming to the best of our abilities that allows for the utmost opportunities for all of our children.”

The House plan also has the backing of both major Ohio teachers unions, the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teacher, who on Wednesday called on Senate lawmakers to adopt the plan’s elements.

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The Senate’s school-funding proposal would also require that the state, not individual districts, pay charter schools directly for the first time. In addition, the legislation allows public school districts to operate an online school for students, including providing free access to the internet and a computer.

That measure was an outcome of districts developing online systems during the coronavirus pandemic and wanting to continue that option, said Senate Finance Chairman Matt Dolan.

The Senate version of the budget also:

—Provides an across-the-board personal income tax cut of 5%.

—Raises the eligibility level for poor families accessing publicly funded day care from those making 130% of the federal poverty level to 142%, and provides $50 million to discount co-payments for such day care. The Senate plan also eliminates the requirement that day cares achieve a quality of care rating to be listed in the state system. Child care advocates say that change will hurt the quality of care available for Ohioans who need the publicly funded option.

—Shields names collected through the state’s Vax-a-Million lottery incentive program from the state’s open records law.

—Mandates that physicians who provide back-up coverage at local hospitals as part of required patient-transfer agreements with abortion clinics must practice within 25 miles (40 kilometers) of the clinics.

— Requires that candidates for chief justice or justice of the Ohio Supreme Court and for appeals court judicial seats must appear on the general election ballot with a political party designation. Partisan designations are not permitted under current law.