Sunday, July 18, 2004

Find real fixes for school funding crisis


One doesn't have to look far to see that school funding is a burgeoning concern in Ohio. A record 103 issues are on the August ballot, traditionally the toughest time of year to pass school levies. And many districts are making significant cuts in addition to asking for new millage.

Forced to acknowledge that schools are in trouble, state legislators appear newly willing to take on thorny funding issues, including ending property tax rollbacks that have plagued school districts for decades.

School districts applaud the expanded discussion - but fear the proposed solutions are short-term fixes, or may create as many problems as they resolve.

Republican House members are responsible for some of the furthest-reaching solutions. Last week they proposed legislation that would allow local taxpayers to approve levies without the property tax rollback feature - meaning that, as property values increase, schools could collect additional property taxes. In a related move, Rep. Jon Peterson (R-Delaware) has proposed an end to "phantom revenue" - a quirk in the funding formula by which state funding is based on the assumption that schools receive increases in property taxes when they do not.

Other legislators have proposed allowing voters to enact a countywide schools sales tax and a school income tax that exempts unearned income, such as retirement benefits. Simultaneously, the governor's Blue Ribbon Task Force on funding is pondering a 22-mill levy floor for all school districts. Taxes would rise with property values as in the Republican proposals.

This creativity is a welcome addition to the stodgy old rhetoric on school funding, but falls short of full remedy. One problem is that all of these solutions originate with local taxpayers. The state must suggest improvements for its own funding formula. And, while the proposed solutions would not harm any district, they would almost surely increase the wealth gap between rich and poor districts.

Finally, the end of the property tax rollback is a significant reform, but will local property owners make peace with annual jumps in their property taxes - or say no to future levies?

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