COMMENTARY: Seeking a better way to fund Ohio schools

When the Lakota School District put a levy on the ballot in 2013, I was part of a great team that worked very hard to help it pass, which it did. It was crucial for the school district.

What I learned about school funding, both while working on the levy and since, is a big part of why I’m running for public office. Have you ever heard of ECOT?

It may be the biggest financial scandal in Ohio history.

ECOT — the “Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow” — closed earlier this year. It was a “virtual” school. Its 12,000 students were spread across Ohio, getting their education online.

ECOT was privately owned, and a for-profit school. Yet it was also considered, under state law, a public charter school. It received about $1 billion in taxpayer money since it opened in 2000.

State Auditor Dave Yost said that ECOT was inflating its attendance numbers. Yost said ECOT was counting a computer turned on at a student’s home as meaning the child was doing schoolwork. Really? As every parent with a school-age child and a computer knows, a computer turned on does not mean schoolwork is being done. The Ohio Department of Education said ECOT overcharged taxpayers by $80 million just in the last two years.

Yost is referring his audit to law enforcement authorities to see if criminal charges should be filed.

How did ECOT get away with this for so long? Well, ECOT’s founder, Bill Lager, and his associates donated millions to members of the Ohio Statehouse over many years. Is there a connection? You decide.

Our school funding system in Ohio is broken.

Ohio is funding public schools at $1 billion less than before the Great Recession, while charter schools have received an historic $1 billion in taxpayer dollars.

When public schools are short-changed by the state, it often forces them to go back to their community and ask for more tax money. But those property tax levies — like the one I worked on — are themselves flawed. They especially hurt senior citizens on fixed incomes.

There is a path forward.

We need to reduce the over-reliance on property taxes, by spreading the cost more evenly among the state’s different tax revenues.

We need to change House Bill 920. It dates to 1976, when inflation was raging. House Bill 920 says that, in general, property taxes cannot go up with inflation. As property values rise, the school receives no additional dollars from a levy that voters previously approved. So as costs, such as salaries, bus fuel, insurance, etc., increase a little most years, the school district falls behind. Eventually it needs to come back and ask for another levy. The state budget needs to give public schools some sort of small annual increase, as an inflation adjustment. It would mean fewer property tax levies, and smaller ones.

We need to take a close look at privately owned, for-profit charter schools, and hold them to the same standards Ohio’s 600 public school districts are held to.

We need a school funding system that is fair and sustainable, and constitutional. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled four times Ohio’s is not, because of its over-reliance on property taxes.

Ohio used to be a leader in public education. If we put people over politics, it can be once again.

Kathy Wyenandt is a candidate for state representative in Ohio’s 52nd District, which includes Fairfield, Liberty and West Chester townships, and parts of Sharonville.

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