Political Representation & School Funding

School crossing sign

Every child deserves an excellent education. Commitment to this fundamental belief demands that the pursuit to remove all impediments from achieving an equitable education for every child should never be abandoned. To better understand these barriers we review the historic and present-day practices with respect to two major issues in public education in Franklin County, Ohio: political representation and school funding. This brief report discusses their impact on public education and how they can support or stifle equity in education.

Historically, African Americans1 have been denied the right to education notwithstanding their commitment to the value of education and their attempts to establish avenues for education. In times of slavery, education was often outlawed and those who sought it regardless were brutally punished (Rury, 2016; Williams, 2005).  This denial of what we now value as a basic right is the backdrop for many of our current political and financial challenges in public education.

Political representation and the allocation of public funds, or funding, are intrinsically linked.  Public funding is an expression of a community’s values and it is, therefore, imperative for all parts of a community to have a ‘voice’ on policy and funding decisions. The elusive equity in public education that we strive for begins when every citizen’s voice, opinion, and perspective is considered and when policy and funding are established.

Franklin County, Ohio, like many other American counties and cities, has a reprehensible history regarding its treatment of African Americans and their communities. Following the racist practices of the nation, Blacks did not have political representation in Franklin County and their collective voice was silenced when legislators laid the foundation for public education (Jacobs, 1998). This, combined with scores of other systematic racial restrictions, ascribed the Black community to a formidable state of vulnerability.  Today many are speaking up and making their voices heard in the political arena in an effort to confront and disarm systemic inequity that parented current vulnerabilities.

The lack of political representation for Blacks has contributed to the unfair public funding system in Franklin County. This unfair practice was ruled to be unconstitutional by Ohio’s district court, based on housing patterns—i.e., residential planning that has historically led to segregation. Despite this ruling against the City of Columbus, local legislators have resisted making any meaningful changes and have tacitly supported a perpetual state of unfairness in funding practices.

A crowd gathered with picket signs

Political Representation

Political representation is the first pillar that we need to address and in some ways the most important one. By political representation, we mean the ability of a population to have a legitimate and representational voice in the institutions that make economic, civic, and educational decisions; in essence the ability of everyone regardless of race, class, or ethnicity to exercise their democratic rights. The primacy of reconstructing the current inequitable system of political representation is dictated by the history of oppression and marginalization which for centuries has hindered African Americans all over the United States, and Ohio in particular, from governing their own lives and securing the well-being of their communities (Jacobs, 1998; Rury, 2016; Williams, 2005). In what follows, we show how Black people exercised power even when denied civic rights; we shed light on how disenfranchising practices are still in effect today; and we discuss alternatives that might increase the political representation of vulnerable populations.

A Brief History

A good starting point is to think about how Black students have been educated in Franklin County historically because that history might provide insight into equity in education. Even before African Americans were given formal civic rights, they found ways to exercise power over educational decisions in Columbus.  In the mid-19th century, as Jacobs (1998) explains, Black people in Columbus were barred from the state-supported schools. As a result, two decades before the Civil War, they bought their own plot of land and built their own school. State law-makers then codified a separate school system for Black people. This breakthrough illustrates how Black people managed to affect state law even before Black suffrage was established. Because Black teachers were restricted to teaching in Black schools, Columbus’s Black high school, Champion, ended up having a hyper-educated faculty who were also leaders and role models in the Black community (Randolph & Robinson, 2017). By the election of the first Black member of the school board in 1961, the growing Black population of Columbus had already been educating itself and thus providing the seeds for Columbus’ civil rights movement. This movement first took action when Black parents and organizations sued the Columbus City School Board over segregated construction plans in 1973 (Jacobs, 1998). Desegregation in Columbus, however, resulted in the loss of the role models and leaders of the segregated Black community, as they were reassigned to teach in other communities (Randolph & Robinson, 2017). Any push for equity in Franklin County education must first contend with the lack of political representation for vulnerable communities, which is largely responsible for the impediments to education that Black communities have historically faced.

The Present System of Representation

The lack of representation in the policy-making process led to negative outcomes for Black communities; this form of disenfranchisement continues to be an issue today. In order to quantify the lack of representation, scholars, community members, and policymakers must turn to specific problems impacting vulnerable communities.  For example, in 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the City of Columbus for “police misconduct and racial profiling” (Weatherspoon, 2004, p. 733). Shortly after a collection of “reforms” within the Columbus Police Department (CPD), the DOJ dropped the charges.  The CPD (1999) claimed to have addressed structural racism; simultaneously, there was a 2.5 million dollar increase in law enforcement officers’ legal defense fund. This increase in funding was voted on by police officers located outside of Columbus, meaning individuals from suburban region of Franklin County were mobilized to counter the DOJ’s lawsuit seeking to protect Black communities. As a result of the buttressing of legal support and a collection of other factors, the Black community continues to be subjected to structural racism at the hands of the police force. Over 20 years have passed since the DOJ dropped its suit and more than two dozen complaints have been brought against the CPD from 2016-2018 including the fatal shooting of Henry Green and 13-year-old Tyre King (Welsh-Huggins, 2017).

Although the particular problem of police violence continues to resurface due to the lack of representation, the Black community has continued to be relentless in their pursuit of justice.  This relentless spirit has the potential to be the impetus for achieving educational equity.  Tammy Fournier-Alsaada, a community activist and author, proclaimed that, “Until you deal with the fact that [Columbus has] a rogue police force terrorizing a neighborhood, we will continue to sit in these seats and demand justice” (Rousan, 2017, para. 3).  This statement was made after activists occupied a city council meeting for nearly two hours on September 19, 2017; activists left unsatisfied after city council refused to address the CPD’s structural racism. Policymakers and Franklin County community members must ask themselves how vulnerable populations in Columbus can prioritize education when they lack the necessary amount of meaningful political representation in order to secure the well-being of their communities. Bowen and Bowen (1999) asserted that “exposure to and perceptions of danger in schools and neighborhoods are likely to threaten the ability of youth to fulfill their potential in the school setting” (p. 319). Acknowledging these barriers and ensuring marginalized communities have a meaningful role in policy-making is the first step in forming an equitable education system.

Recommendations for Future Representation

One possible way of addressing this lack of representation is adopting a ward election system (Bartels, 2009). Ward election systems—that is, voting systems aimed to maintain authority at the local level (such as neighborhoods or communities) as opposed to at-large voting systems that appeal to city-wide or district-wide authority—have historically benefited neighborhoods that are of a low socioeconomic status, which face challenges with increasing voter turnout. Columbus would benefit greatly from changing their voting system from an at-large system to a ward system because marginalized communities would have a direct link to the City Council.  According to a study analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of ward election systems, researchers have shown that various parts of municipalities have different priorities (Dhindsa, 2016). For example, one neighborhood may be dealing with supporting people who find themselves homeless, while other neighborhoods are dealing with economic growth. This difference in need presented by this study is reflective of the differences in needs between neighborhoods in Columbus. The residents of Columbus would benefit from advocating for the transformation of the current at-large election system to a  ward-based election system.  In 2016, 9% of the voting population struck down a measure (72.6% of the vote) that would have established a hybrid at-large and ward-based election system (Sullivan, 2016). Although there may be influential Columbus residents who are supporters of the current at-large system, the mobilization of people, who want to see an increase in the amount of political representation for marginalized communities, can force the members of City Council to acknowledge this request.

Artistic drawing of people gathered outside "Your Money School" with pillars of Education, Planning, Investing, and Savings

School Funding

Having surveyed the inequities of the Franklin County school system from the perspective of political representation, it is now time to examine the second locus of inequity, namely, funding. Though drawing a clear line between political representation and school funding is not feasible, focusing on funding policies separately affords us some insight into the form that inequities emerging from lack of representation took, and how it shaped the current educational system of Franklin County which is ridden with economic disparities.

A Brief History

In 1977, the district court of Ohio found the Columbus Board of Education guilty of intentional racial segregation and ordered measures to remedy the situation. Despite the Board’s claims that the racial disparity resulted from housing patterns over which they had no influence, Judge Duncan decided that, since schools do indeed influence the population’s housing decisions, the Board was directly affecting housing patterns by inducing and perpetuating racial segregation. It is on this intent to segregate that the unconstitutionality of the Board’s practices was warranted, as indicated by the Keyes precedent (Penick v. Columbus, 1977). The long history of the school system in Columbus provides insight regarding the establishment of this intent. The early existence of integrated schools since 1881 (both in terms of students and faculty) was undermined by the Columbus Board which undertook active efforts to segregate by building new schools in Black neighborhoods and switching Black and white faculty members to match the racial identity of students (Penick v. Columbus, 1977). Furthermore, new policies were adopted—strategic selection of new school locations, gerrymandering, the establishment of “optional attendance zones,” and the promotion of “discontiguous attendance areas”—to serve the purpose of undermining integration efforts and promoting segregation (Penick v. Columbus, 1977). Despite the Penick ruling’s establishment that the Columbus Board went out of its way to promote segregation in ways that were organizationally inefficient and costly, the Board engaged in a series of appeals which led to an “indefinite stay of implementation” of the court orders only a few months later (Jacobs, 1998, p. 96).

In 1997, due to the statewide failure of desegregation attempts mandated by previous court cases, the Ohio school funding system was found to be unconstitutional. The Ohio Supreme Court, in what came to be known as the DeRolph v. State of Ohio case, asserted the state’s failure to provide “a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state,” a fundamental right of all students (DeRolph v. State, 2002, para. 2). In an attempt to remedy this situation, the court demanded “‘a complete systematic overhaul’ of the school-funding system” given that the property-tax funding model was primarily responsible for the inequities between districts and the inadequacies of poor districts (para. 5). Three years later, the changes that had been enacted as a result of the DeRolph decision were found to be inadequate and school funding was once again ruled unconstitutional. However, the “systematic overhaul” never happened and in 2003 the fifth and final restatement of DeRolph “put an end to the plaintiffs’ attempt … because it barred all parties from further litigation” (Sweetland, 2014, p. 90).

Funding for Public Schools in the Present

Notwithstanding the unconstitutionality of the Ohio school funding system established by the DeRolph rulings, schools continue to operate under a similar structure. An examination of present-day funding illustrates how property taxes are the main source of revenue for public schools. Inequity in funding persists since tax bases vary depending on property value (Sweetland, personal communication, March 7, 2018). A lesser-known problem is the passage of House Bill 920 in 1976. This tax policy states that schools are not able to generate additional revenue based on property value, placing additional burden on schools to be reliant on property taxes (Sweetland, personal communication, March 7, 2018). Even though property value within a specific district may increase, the schools do not receive any additional funds because this policy, “…eliminates changes in revenue from certain voted levies that would otherwise occur when existing real property in a taxing unit is reappraised or updated” (Ohio Department of Taxation, 2009). Consequently, this policy prompted school districts to pass additional levies to address the inflation of operating costs (Sweetland, 2014). It is practically impossible to raise equitable funds to support lower-wealth districts (Sweetland, personal communication, March 7, 2018).

Along with local taxation and levies, public schools also receive state funding. The amount of funds a district receives is determined using a foundation formula based on student enrollment population and property wealth (Ohio Department of Education, 2017). In addition, profits from the Ohio Lottery subsidize activities for the Ohio Department of Education including assessments, early education, preschool special education, and district report cards (Ohio Department of Education, 2017).

Lone school chair inside a old broken down school room with graffiti on the wall

Funding Between Low & High Vulnerability

Having examined the current funding situation in the Ohio school system, it may be worthwhile to have a closer look at the disparities between poor and wealthy districts within Franklin County. When looking at the funding and expenditures of four school districts in Franklin County (Dublin, Columbus City, Upper Arlington, and Groveport Madison – due to the limited scope of this report we focus on two of the wealthiest and two of the poorest districts where the disparities are most accentuated), several findings are noticeable. First, it is worth noting that both Dublin and Upper Arlington are ranked in the top 20% of schools in Ohio in terms of both Performance Index and Value-Added student growth, whereas Columbus City and Groveport Madison are ranked quite low, according to the Ohio Department of Education district report cards.

Through a comparative study of Dublin and Columbus City districts, it appears that both districts have similar expenditures per pupil; however, Dublin spends approximately 13% more money per pupil on instructional costs than Columbus City. Additionally, upon examining total revenue received versus total expenditures, it appears that Dublin has fewer than 4% of revenue remaining after their total district operating expenditures. Columbus City, on the other hand, appears to have more than 22% percent of their revenue remaining.

Meanwhile, by comparing the finances of Upper Arlington district and Groveport Madison Local district—both are similarly sized districts—in Upper Arlington the expenditures per equivalent pupil is nearly one and a half times that of Groveport Madison. Again, there is a huge discrepancy between the amount spent on instructional costs per pupil between the two districts, with Upper Arlington being around 71% and Groveport Madison around 55%. Additionally, the percentage of expenditures on building costs varies greatly, with Upper Arlington spending 13% and Groveport Madison spending 23%. Similar to the comparison of Dublin with Columbus City, the discrepancy in remaining funding is quite stark between Upper Arlington and Groveport Madison. After district total expenditures, Upper Arlington is left with a 7% remainder in revenue, while Groveport Madison with 27%. (All calculations were created by examining finance reports published on the Ohio Department of Education’s Funding and Finance website.)

As shown above, district wealth does not necessarily correlate directly to per-pupil expenditures, but perhaps plays a role in how schools are allocating their funding within those expenditures. While the above data does not demonstrate a definitive gradation of per-pupil expenditures from highest to lowest vulnerability, it does demonstrate discrepancies regarding how schools are choosing to utilize their money.

Conclusion Young African American woman staring into the future

When the general public discusses the issue of educational inequity, political representation and school funding models are at the forefront of the discussion.  However, when considering the problems we must remember that many of these populations were intentionally and systematically restricted from participating in the education system for centuries.  The issues addressed in this report are direct consequences of this historic oppression and render any solution a form of muddled progression at best. In an effort to further progress, this report exposes historic and present-day impediments to equity in education. There is no “silver bullet” solution or a one-size-fits-all answer.  This report aspires to encourage an ongoing dialogue while welcoming all voices and perspectives to consider past practices, present-day challenges, and future solutions to provide equity in public education for every student in Franklin County.


[1] The authors chose to use “African American” and “Black” interchangeably to acknowledge the various ways Black Americans identify. The term “Black” is capitalized when referring to black people in America due to the difficulty in identifying the exact origin of many Black Americans.  The system of slavery stripped African culture from Black Americans’ ancestors, leaving people who were enslaved to create a new community on the North American continent. This historical reality causes some Black people to claim their ethnicity as this community created from the common struggle for liberation. Terms delineating ethnicity should be capitalized (i.e., African, German, Hispanic, Asian, Native American); therefore, Black in this context is also capitalized.  When referring to all people of African descent, we use a lowercase “b” to appropriately recognize race as a social construct. The term “white” will have a lowercase “w” because white people are generally able to identify their ethnic origins. These semantics respect the African diaspora and the historical context stated above.