By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau
NEW LEXINGTON, O. — An expert on the way states pay for their public schools called Ohio’s new plan “illogical” and “arbitrary” and too easy for lawmakers to manipulate.
“The state doesn’t in fact know what it is financing with this new legislation,” Kern Alexander, president of Murray State University, Murray, Ky., said in court testimony here yesterday.
Dr. Alexander was one of three national school finance experts assembled by the state in 1994 to find a new way to finance its schools after Perry County Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis declared the old system unconstitutional because it is unfair to children in poor parts of the state.
Dr. Alexander spoke at the start of the second week of hearings Judge Lewis is holding to determine if the state has done a good enough job in fixing the system.
Dr. Alexander is to continue his testimony this morning, then face cross-examination by attorneys for the state. Testimony is to continue through the end of this week.
After Judge Lewis makes his decision, the case almost certainly will be appealed by the losing side to the Ohio Supreme Court.
In his testimony, Dr. Alexander ripped into the method the state adopted earlier this year to determine how much it costs, per pupil, to provide a quality education. The number is known as the base cost or the foundation cost.
Under court order, the state has to find out that cost and guarantee it will be provided to all districts, no matter how poor, through state aid.
Most states, Dr. Alexander said, figure out that cost by calculating what a good school has to pay for – things like up-to-date books, good teachers, and safe buildings – and determine a per-pupil cost from there.
Ohio, however, hired Colorado-based consultant John Augenblick last year to figure out its base cost, and he had a different method in mind.
Dr. Augenblick’s idea was, in essence, to work in reverse. Instead of figuring out costs first, he decided to look at districts considered successful and examine how much they spent.
He assembled a complex system of screens and calculations, first determining what exactly made for a “successful” district. He decided on a set of criteria almost exclusively focused on proficiency test scores.
From there, he determined a long list of school districts he did not include in his calculations, including districts that are too rich or too poor and districts that spent too much or too little on administration, maintenance, or pupil support.
After winnowing out all those districts, Dr. Augenblick took an average of the per-pupil costs of those districts remaining. The total, $4,269, was the number he recommended that the state pay.
Dr. Alexander said his colleague’s idea was “novel” but nonsensical. “There is no internal integrity to the process,” he said.
He said Dr. Augenblick pulled out so many districts during his winnowing process that those left were not representative of the state. After the winnowing was complete in Dr. Augenblick’s formula, only 102 of the state’s 611 districts were left.
Because it worked in reverse, the Augenblick formula did not actually determine how much it costs to provide a good education in Ohio, Dr. Alexander argued.
Another problem, he said, is that the formula, because it relies on so many numbers unconnected to resources, makes it easy for someone to manipulate the pro cess to produce a desired result simply by slightly changing a few numbers.
He said the process Dr. Aug en blick devised could be manipulated by lawmakers who were more concerned with spending less money than providing an equitable education.
Indeed, even after Dr. Aug en blick submitted his recommended base cost per pupil – $4,269 – last year, lawmakers tweaked his formula until the per-pupil amount was reduced to $4,063.
Dr. Alexander criticized the formula as too arbitrary and not grounded in the real world. Dr. Augenblick, in testimony last week, said he had “just eyeballed” a chart to determine how many districts to eliminate as too wealthy or too poor for consideration. He said he had not visited any Ohio schools in doing his work.