Children’s Coalition: Senate Budget Prioritizes Tax Cut ‘Gimmick’ over Schools, Child Care

The Senate’s version of the budget shortchanges schools, child care providers and low-income families, according to members of the Ohio Children’s Budget Coalition.

Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio Executive Director Tracy Najera, Ohio Education Association (OEA) President Scott DiMauro and Pre4Cle Executive Director Katie Kelly held a press conference on Thursday to denounce many provisions in the substitute version of HB110 (Oelslager), which was accepted in the Senate Finance Committee earlier this week. (See The Hannah Report, 6/1/21.)

“We need our leaders to choose to invest in programs that lead to thriving communities, excellent schools, accessible and high-quality child care, and safe and nurturing homes and communities, rather than operating in an austerity mindset when it comes to Ohioans who are truly in need. The repeated tendency is to give away our tax dollars to the few, or for symbolic purposes,” Najera said, noting the proposed 5 percent tax cut is “more like a gimmick, rather than an investment in Ohio’s future.”

“The tax cut is worth $874 million, and the amount that people will actually benefit from that, it’s not significant,” Najera said.

“When you think about the purpose of government, when you think about the purpose of taxes and pulling our money together to buy those common goods that benefit all of us, it is child care and K-12 education,” she continued. “Those dollars would be better spent going toward providing that child care infrastructure for parents, for working individuals who can’t make that choice between employment and the safety of our children. We need that infrastructure to be there to serve all of us, and similarly with K-12. We keep hearing from employers that they need folks in the workforce ready to hit the ground running. That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because you have a quality K-12 infrastructure.”

Kelly agreed, saying investments in child care and K-12 education will do more for the economy than tax cuts would.

“What is really the best path? Is it giving people $70 to $200 back in their pockets? I know I can’t create a job with $200. I don’t know who else can,” Kelly said.

If lawmakers want to modify tax policy to help Ohioans and the economy, they should include something like a refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in the budget, Kelly and Najera said.

“Our work is based on and grounded in research and evidence,” Najera said. “When you think about things like EITC, it is evidence-based. It’s a body of research that shows it is one of the number one anti-poverty public policy solutions that we have in our toolkit. Why we’re not using it more, I don’t know. One of the things we need to ask ourselves is, ‘Are we following the research when it comes to items that have been included in this budget, or are we following something else?’ … We have so many legislators who want to emulate business and business practices, so let’s do that. Let’s follow best practices. Let’s look at what the customer needs, and the customer in this case is Ohioans -- all Ohioans, not just certain segments.”

During his remarks, DiMauro criticized the substance of the Senate’s education funding plan, as well as the process.

“The plan that was passed by the Senate was crafted in a process that was behind closed doors. … It was just released 48 hours ago. We’re still in the process of trying to digest it. There was no apparent public input. There has been no bipartisanship. There has been no support from education stakeholder groups for the Senate plan. … And on top of all that, it appears that the Senate’s version of the funding formula is in temporary code, which adds another layer of uncertainty once we get past this budget cycle,” DiMauro said.

“The Fair School Funding Plan that was passed by the House represents more than three years of work by legislators, local school leaders and education finance experts to craft meaningful alternatives to the current way Ohio funds education,” he continued. “It seeks to base funding on what students need, based on the actual cost of providing a high-quality education. The Fair School Funding Plan has broad bipartisan support in the House.”

When fully phased in, the House plan would provide a statewide average base of approximately $7,200 per pupil, DiMauro said, noting the Senate plan only provides $6,110 per pupil, which is an increase of $90, or 1.5 percent, from two years ago.

“[The Senate’s] increase only covers about one quarter the inflation rate,” he said, adding that senators provided much larger percentage increases for private and charter schools.

“They increase funding for private school vouchers by 25 percent. The Senate further expands eligibility for vouchers and charter schools at the expense of children in our public schools, where 90 percent of Ohio’s children are educated,” DiMauro said. “Under the Senate plan, a high school student getting a private school voucher would receive more state aid than kids attending 80 percent of Ohio’s public schools. Voucher students would get more funding than public students in about 50 percent of Ohio’s public schools. By not instituting a permanent funding formula, the Senate leaves itself with an opportunity to radically defund local public schools in the next General Assembly and further boost private and charter schools.”

Responding to a question from Hannah News, DiMauro said it’s unclear exactly how much money would be shifted from public schools to private and charter schools under the Senate’s plan.

“We know that in the Senate version of the budget, they lift the cap on the number of EdChoice vouchers that can be provided, and they also significantly increase the amount of funding available for individual vouchers. In the Senate plan, there is $7,500 for a high school student going to a private school, which is significantly more than the base funding amount for students attending public schools,” DiMauro said. “We also know that in the proposal in the Senate, it takes away some of the limitations on where charter school startups can happen. Right now, it’s limited to places where there are performance standards for public schools that basically provide a trigger for opening a charter school. Those are largely taken away, and so you can see new charter startups happening virtually anywhere.”

DiMauro said the state has the capacity to pay for the Fair School Funding Plan, but senators need to show the “political will” to fund education instead of items like the proposed 5 percent tax cut.

“Losing this revenue will hamstring Ohio’s ability to adequately fund our schools and other important programs. Ohio doesn’t need more tax cuts. We need more funding for our students,” he said.

During her remarks, Kelly said she was “extremely disappointed” to find that the Senate removed Step Up to Quality (SUTQ) requirements for licensed child care centers to provide publicly-funded services, calling it “shortsighted and extremely harmful” to Ohio’s early childhood learning system.

“SUTQ is Ohio’s research-based five-star quality rating system for early learning programs. A star rating is a sign that an early care education provider has invested in program standards that exceed licensing, health and safety regulations, and are proven to support learning and development standards in young children. SUTQ standards include elements such as implementing a research-based curriculum, working with teachers to ensure that they have early learning and child development understanding, engaging families, smaller class sizes, and other supports that are essential to young children. These are not pie-in-the-sky standards or merely paperwork checklist items. These are fundamentals that all effective early education programs need, and all children deserve,” Kelly said, adding that SUTQ was passed 15 years ago with support from Republicans and Democrats.

“Since 2007, the state and local communities have invested in increasing both access and quality in early childhood settings, and we are now seeing the results of those investments. In Cleveland, we consistently see a 17-percentage-point difference, at least, in kindergarten readiness between children who experience high quality preschool and children who are in unrated child care settings. Those kinds of results are being replicated throughout the state,” Kelly said. “In 2020, Ohio met the goal of all state-funded early learning programs reaching at least a one star within SUTQ, a major accomplishment that took eight years of effort and investment on behalf of the state, local communities and thousands of early childhood providers who worked very hard to reach that goal. The Senate version would move us backward, and throw away that accomplishment and those investments.”

Kelly said children’s advocates are happy to see the Senate’s proposed increase in eligibility for publicly-funded child care to 142 percent of the federal poverty level, which is higher than the levels proposed by the DeWine administration and the House (138 percent of federal poverty).

“We agree that more families should have access to child care, which is why we continue to advocate for eligibility to increase to 200 percent of the federal poverty level,” Kelly said, noting that Ohio would still rank in the bottom five states in the U.S. in terms of child care access if the level is increased to 142 percent. She said she’s not sure how many extra children would gain access under the 142 percent proposal because she was not involved in those discussions, but knows that the 138 percent proposal would affect about 2,500 children statewide.

“Going to 150 would impact about 18,000 children, so that’s why we were aiming for that as the interim step. I don’t know if 142 was just sort of a mid-point between those. I’m not sure where that came from,” Kelly said. “At 130, we are the second lowest state as far as income eligibility for child care, so we have a long way to go. And 200 percent is not a ceiling, it’s really what we see as what should be the floor.”

Kelly also criticized a budget provision that prohibits the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) from using federal funding through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 or the American Rescue Plan Act to provide stipends or workforce supports to child care staff, early childhood professionals or administration. Federal pandemic relief funding also cannot be spent on helping publicly-funded child care providers increase their SUTQ rating, under the Senate budget.

“Throughout 2020 and 2021, all of Ohio’s early learning programs experienced closures, reduced classroom sizes and financial and human hardship of illness, drastic new safety protocols and constant change. Unlike K-12 schools, early childhood programs could not ask children to mask or keep their social distance. That’s not what two- three- and four-year-olds are able to do. So the only way that they could maintain safety within their programs was to reduce the number of children in classrooms and constantly address the sanitation that they needed to maintain. All of those things caused an ongoing decrease in capacity, which we’re still dealing with as a state. Removing SUTQ and putting handcuffs on how the state can spend federal relief dollars will not solve those issues that we’re still experiencing as a result of the pandemic,” Kelly said.

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on June 3, 2021.  Copyright 2021 Hannah News Service, Inc.