Cost of educating impoverished students much higher than Ohio takes into account, new study says

COLUMBUS – Urban school districts like Cincinnati Public Schools have less money to spend on basic education while wealthy districts like Indian Hill have even more when poverty is taken into proper consideration.

That’s the conclusion of a study released Tuesday that was commissioned by three Ohio education groups – the Ohio School Boards Association, the Buckeye Association of School Administrators and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials.

The groups hired the Education Tax Policy Institute to check whether the formula that the Ohio Department of Education uses annually to compare spending among the state’s 600-plus school districts accurately accounts for the extra costs that some students present.

A look at how much districts spend on their students with and without accounting for poverty is here:

See how local school districts are ranked ODE Weighted vs. ETPI Unweighted.

Ohio’s formula tallies local, state and federal dollars spent per student in each district but then adjusts the final number by taking into account the concentration of students from low-income families, with learning disabilities and with English deficiencies.

That weighted scale takes districts like Cincinnati Public Schools – with high poverty, immigrant and disabled concentrations – from being the 17th highest spender per student to being the 33rd highest.
The state currently counts each impoverished student – defined as one who qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch – as 1.1 students when doling out state education funds on a per-student basis.

But Howard B. Fleeter, the author of the new study, said the state’s formula undervalues the true cost of educating impoverished students compared to students from middle- and high-income families.

“Regarding poverty, what you have is more and more kids not as ready to learn as other kids – no preschool, so they may not know the alphabet entering kindergarten; they move from home to home; they may not have breakfast; they probably don’t have parents reading to them – all sorts of things correlated to socioeconomics,” Fleeter said.

Click on the map below for more information about spending and poverty by school district:

View the map of median incomes for local school districts.

Using a Gates Foundation study of California’s school system and other major evaluations of the effects of poverty on education costs, Fleeter concluded that the true extra cost associated with poverty is triple what the state considers the most accurate “apples to apples” comparison of districts. His study said impoverished students should count as 1.3 students. That change, if adopted, would mean more state money for districts with high concentrations of poverty and less for wealthier districts.

CPS spending per pupil drops to 55th in the state using Fleeter’s formula. Indian Hill goes from the 11th-highest spender on an unweighted scale to the fourth highest. Lockland City Schools, whose student population is nearly 80 percent economically disadvantaged, sees its rank in spending plunge from 64th to 234.

Janet Walsh, a spokesperson for CPS, said the study shed light on a real problem.

"We know that students who live in poverty can reach high academic standards, but it also has been our experience that many low-income students enter school lacking basic readiness skills and therefore need extra resources and supports to become proficient learners,” she said. “So we do agree with the report's conclusion that students in poverty should be weighted higher in the state funding formula.”

Walsh added, “The change certainly would be welcome in Cincinnati, which the National Center for Children in Poverty found had the nation's third highest rate of concentrations of children in poverty."

Change may be in the works.

“The state formula was developed in 2007, and we’ve continued to use it,” said John Charlton, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education. “However, I did talk to some people in our fiscal area, and they are looking at reviewing that formula. We’re potentially looking at changing it for the Fiscal Year 2014 report.”

“We understand where Mr. Fleeter is coming from, and we’re going to take a closer look,” he said.

The change, if accepted by lawmakers, taxpayers and parents, could have profound implications for how school funding is distributed, boosting funding for the state’s largest urban districts but also for smaller low-income districts like Lockland, Mount Healthy and North College Hill.

Poverty has spread far beyond the boundaries of Ohio’s biggest cities. According to the state, 42 percent of public school students are economically disadvantaged.

“You’re seeing poverty now in a lot of suburban districts where we didn’t see it before,” Fleeter said. “Income equality in this country is at a point right now where like it was right before the Great Depression.”

In six southwest Ohio counties, state data shows that 27 of the 57 school districts have above-average poverty rates, topped by New Miami School

District in Hamilton with 81 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunches, followed by Lockland City Schools at just under 80 percent and Mount Healthy at 76 percent.

Districts with the lowest percentage of impoverished students are Mariemont at 3.7 percent, followed by Springboro at 4 percent and Indian Hill at 5.3 percent.

Fleeter hopes the study furthers a discussion of how money is spent to address the challenges to education that poverty poses.

“The first thing that we want is for people to understand that this is a good way to look at our expenditure data,” he said. “The goal of all this isn’t just to distribute the right amount of money to school districts. It’s to improve the quality of education.”

Eileen Cooper Reed, chair of the CPS school board, was glad that the study agreed with what she said Cincinnati schools already knew. She would like to see more state funding to not only boost spending but to relieve the burden on Cincinnati property owners.

“I’ll be interested to see if the legislature responds to the report because they keep on saying that the formula is fixed, and it’s not,” Reed said.

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