COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio Gov. John Kasich unveiled a school-funding overhaul on Thursday aimed at helping students in poor districts compete by narrowing tax-base disparities, while rewarding innovation and expanding access to vouchers.
The Republican governor proposed spending $15.1 billion on K-12 education over the next two years, boosting funds to districts that are lagging behind in property values and household incomes.
He said he is confident his plan is constitutional, unlike past formulas repeatedly shot down by the courts.
"There is no politics in this plan," Kasich said. "We are attempting in this plan to make sure that every student in Ohio, regardless of the kind of a district they come from based on wealth, has an opportunity to compete with a child in a district that has greater wealth. We think that's really important."
The administration said no school would see funding cut next year under the current formula, to allow them time to adjust.
Under the long-awaited plan, state funding for K-12 districts would rise nearly 6 percent in fiscal year 2014, and 3.2 percent the next year -- a total of $1.2 billion more over the two-year budget compared to the previous biennium. School budgets have been pounded by declines in other revenue sources, including the end of federal stimulus dollars, the phasing out of a state business tax, and declining property values in many areas.
A special "Straight A" fund with $300 million in additional money would be created to reward districts with grants for innovation and efficiency.
The plan, dubbed "Achievement Everywhere," proposes bringing all schools up to the tax base level of a district with $250,000 in property value per student -- the 96th percentile of districts statewide -- to ease wide disparities in millage revenues from local levies.
The guarantee of no funding cuts doesn't extend beyond the next two years, so the exact repercussions of the plan remain unclear -- particularly for districts that may have to wean themselves off state funding that will move elsewhere.
The plan also directs extra money to districts for special-needs students. The plan further calls for more funding help for educating disabled students and students who are learning to speak English, while also providing money to support gifted and talented students and high school students who take college courses.
Kasich proposes expanding vouchers for parents to move children from low-performing schools to private ones. He declined in an afternoon teleconference to predict how student migration under that program would affect district finances.
Funding help is also proposed for districts with high levels of poverty where students don't have access to preschool programs. Other aid would help them reach Ohio's new third grade reading proficiency target.
It also includes steps to increase transparency on school efficiency and performance, and to encourage districts to learn from the successes of comparable districts.
Kasich told school administrators the state's financial stewardship allowed the administration to avoid the cuts many had worried about -- describing their reaction to the plan as bordering on excitement. He said he wants to see the money benefits students directly.
"We want to get those dollars into the classroom," Kasich said.
The introduction of Kasich's plan is expected to kick off months of debate over Ohio's educational direction. He planned an evening online town hall Thursday and a Cincinnati appearance Friday to continue to tout it.
School funding decisions for Ohio's 613 school districts and 353 charter schools are likely to affect many tax bills, home values and the quality of the education children receive.
Democrats and teacher union officials criticized Kasich for not involving them in the plan's development.
"I have a fundamental problem with the governor's approach; that is, the lack of bipartisanship," said Ohio Senate Democratic Leader Eric Kearney, of Cincinnati. He said he was "a little bit amazed" that Kasich hadn't reached out to Democrats for their thoughts.
Kearney also said Kasich's plan lacked detail and specific impacts on individual districts, adding that he was worried by what appeared to be a major expansion of vouchers.
Kasich said the voucher expansion shouldn't be overblown, that it was virtually unchanged.
A key legislator in the Republican-controlled Ohio Senate said she was encouraged by the governor's sweeping plan.
"I think the devil is in the details, and we haven't seen all the details yet," said Senate Education Chairwoman Peggy Lehner, a Kettering Republican. "From the broad concepts I've seen, I think it's very innovative and dynamic."
One teacher thought Kasich missed an opportunity to tap teachers' expertise by excluding educators.
"Unfortunately, the governor is working on education policy and school funding with only a select few," said Ella Jordan Isaac, a 7th grade teacher at Trotwood-Madison, near Dayton. "He must include all of us -- especially those
of us with deep classroom experience -- as we move through this process."
In the two decades since the Ohio Supreme Court first declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional, many other attempts at a workable solution have been made.
According to legislative budget analysts, primary and secondary education accounted for almost 42 percent of state general revenue spending in fiscal 2011 and 40 percent in fiscal 2012.
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