Few would dispute the progress made in Ohio over the past 15 years in building or renovating about 1,000 public school buildings at a cost of about $10 billion.
In the Mahoning Valley alone, a majority of school districts have undergone remarkable transformations in their physical plants. In Youngstown, for example, the state chipped in 80 percent of the nearly $200 million cost to completely renew and reinvent district facilities.
Today, the Ohio School Facilities Commission is more than half-way along its path toward reconstruction or renovation projects in all 612 public school districts serving 1.8 million students. That mission evolved in part from the landmark 1997 Ohio Supreme Court DeRolph ruling that declared Ohio’s system of funding public education unconstitutional because it fell woefully short of affording all Ohio children a thorough and efficient education. As it applies to OSFC, some students were taught in Taj Mahal settings; others learned in squalor.
But 16 years later, shiny new brick-and-mortar physical plants have done little to erase the more internal inequities in funding education or the ongoing financial crises local school districts struggle through largely because of the state’s overworn overreliance on local property taxes.
The OSFC-funded new buildings may give the appearance of wholesale progress but in some respects they’re little more than impressive-looking smokescreens for lingering inequalities in school funding and student performance among urban, suburban and rural school districts.
Disparities remain crystal clear. According to data from the Ohio Department of Education, in 2011, Youngstown City Schools spent an average of $15,408 on each of its 6,057 students compared with the $8,241 spent to educate each of Austintown Local’s 5,149 students.
Disparities in student performance are even more stark. In last year’s state report cards for example, Youngstown schools received a D; Austintown schools received an A+.
SUCCESS IN ITS TARGETED MISSION
Despite the ongoing disparities, the OSFC has succeeded to some extent in leveling the playing field by creating a fresher more appealing learning environment for students, particularly urban students whose schools were among the most decrepid and the first to be modernized.
The gargantuan building program, however, has been no complete panacea toward remedying the precarious state of public education and its funding in the Buckeye State.
And some have raised legitimate concerns about the very visible OSFC program. As The Columbus Dispatch reported in an investigative project earlier this summer, some question the planning prowess of the commission and its staff and contractors. According to The Dispatch, the majority of schools built over the past several years have opened their doors to overcrowded or overcapacity student enrollments, including those in Hubbard and Niles last school year.
In Youngstown, the opposite problem arose. Now, four years after the district completed construction of all its buildings, officials are set to close two new buildings with a combined price tag of $19 million because they have been woefully under capacity.
Some question the priorities of OSFC spending. Could some of the $10 billion spent on new facilities have been better spent on enhanced curricula, updated teacher training or improved educational aids?
Some also question the fairness of OSFC spending. Some districts in which property owners are taxed most heavily find themselves low men on the totem pole of OSFC priorities.
Despite such questioning, the work of OSFC has improved Ohio’s school landscape.
ANOTHER ROCKY YEAR AHEAD
But it has done little to ameliorate Ohio’s longstanding school-funding dilemma. That dilemma is not diminishing.
As we stand on the threshold of the 2013-14 academic year, school districts are again pulling out all the stops. Despite a modest increase to public school funding in the recently adopted 2014-15 state biennium budget, the gains won’t be shared equally among school districts. Some won’t see a dime in new state revenue. And none of the increases will make up for the massive $1.3 billion in hits that education took in the 2012-13 biennium budget.
What’s worse, this year also promises even more hardship to schools as the effects of the federal sequester — aka as irresponsible inaction in the U.S. Congress — will force a loss of about $66 million in federal aid to Ohio public schools, most of it hurting poorer students or those with special needs.
The growth in community schools and voucher programs will also siphon away increasingly more dollars from public school districts.
Collectively, the challenges loom large. And while the state-of-the art buildings may motivate some students to higher performance, in and of themselves they merely crack at the edges of Ohio’s more structural struggle to improve its long-standing dysfunctional system of funding public education.