As the Founding Fathers drew up the blueprint for the great experiment of American democracy, they knew that there would be times when simple majority rule might not be fair. So they created the judicial branch as a counterbalance to the legislative branch, with the idea that a Congress could be prevented from enacting laws that violate the Constitution - in particular laws which infringe upon the rights of individuals.
The debate about the funding of public schools in America is a conversation about fairness as well. The challenge is that there are many perspectives about what is fair. Some of those are:
- We're a capitalist society, so individuals should be free to choose where their kids go to school and how much they're willing to spend for their kids to get the quality of education they desire. Poor folks should work harder and make better choices. It's not clear that we even need government involved in education - can't private enterprise solve this problem?
- Our public education system should be the 'great equalizer' in our society, giving all kids an equal opportunity to succeed in our economy, regardless of the financial resources of their families. People should be taxed progressively (the higher the income, the higher the tax rate), but the money should spent equally - the same amount per student in every school. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this is with a federal school system.
- Let's have some kind of middle ground: Determine the amount of money required for every kid to get a "thorough and efficient" education, and use the tax system to redistribute wealth as necessary so that every school district has at least this amount of money to work with. It's okay for more affluent districts to tax themselves more and spend more, as long as the poorest districts get enough.
The first two are the extremes of course. The first would be characterized by most as being the far-right conservative position, while the second is the far-left liberal perspective. Their perspectives on what is "fair" are pretty clear, but not at all compatible.
The third viewpoint is the center of the bell curve - an opinion with which most Americans would agree. It's also the language of Ohio's Constitution, and of the Ohio Supreme Court decisions in the DeRolph case. However, there is still a great range of opinion allowable in that definition, and the debate is far from over.
The July 13, 2013 edition of the Columbus Dispatch ran a story about school funding fairness in Ohio. Accompanying the story was this chart:.
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Note the statement under the title: "...certain types of districts benefit more than others." This is a comment about fairness. We can also observe that the way the numbers are presented in this chart are influenced by the writer's political leaning.
One's eyes are drawn to the percentages, and it looks like the story the author wants to tell is that the "wealthy suburban" districts got a big pay raise, while the rural districts were shortchanged once again. But here's another way to look at that data:
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I think you might agree that from this perspective, the small number of "wealthy" districts didn't get much in the way of new money at all. The percentage increase for the wealthy districts is larger because the denominator of the fraction is smaller to start with. In dollars, the wealthy districts will receive $230 additional per student, while the urban districts will get $630 more.
This analysis also leaves out any discussion about the amount of state income taxes paid by the residents of these various types of communities. Here is a chart which shows the school funding received from the state expressed as a fraction of the state income tax paid, for an example district in each category:
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Note that each of these school districts is a "net receiver" of funding - they receive more school funding than they pay out in state income taxes. The sole exception is the so-called Wealthy Suburb - which Hilliard is considered to be by the State of Ohio.
I've used New Albany as the example for the chart. They receive 4¢ of state funding for every dollar of income tax paid. In the case of our school district - Hilliard City Schools - this fraction is 39%. In other words, for every dollar in State Income Taxes we collectively pay, the State of Ohio sends back 39¢ to help fund our school district.
Is that fair?
Whether or not you think it is, the relative allocations depicted in the chart above are unlikely to change. Districts like ours will continue to be viewed as the "cash cows" by all the others, who also hold the majority of the seats in the General Assembly.
The consequence, as I have long expressed here, is that the Hilliard Schools community is largely on our own from a funding standpoint. Regardless of this small adjustment in our funding in the new state budget, it will remain true that as our spending rises, nearly all the new money will need to come from local sources - primarily residential homeowners.
And as our incomes rise, most of the additional tax money collected by the State of Ohio will go elsewhere.
Fair or not, that's the political reality. This makes it ever more important that the voters in our community understand how the school district spends the taxpayers' money, and that the expectations of those voters for programs and services are matched by a willingness to foot the bill. This must always include a conversation about the compensation and benefits costs of our faculty, staff and administration...
... which is another important conversation about fairness.