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Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics


Ohio's Urban School Districts Outperforming Rural Ones

April 23, 2019

Even with higher rates of poverty in Ohio’s major cities, urban school districts are outperforming rural districts, a recent study by The Ohio State University shows.

Rural schools, particularly in Appalachia, tend to have lower average test scores than schools in urban areas, despite city districts having higher poverty rates and a larger proportion of students with limited English proficiency, said Mark Partridge, a professor at Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) and one of the study’s authors.

On average, school districts with more minority students and more poverty require additional money to achieve the same academic standards as districts with larger shares of white and affluent student populations, Partridge said. 

“Given the characteristics of their student body, urban schools are doing really well. Rural areas could be doing better,” said Partridge, who is also chair of the C. William Swank Program in Rural-Urban Policy within CFAES.

Ohio has made advances, particularly in the past decade, in giving more per-pupil funding to districts with higher rates of poverty, but there’s still a wide gap, Partridge said.

How to reduce those inequities has been debated since 1997 when the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that the state’s method for funding public education was unconstitutional.

Districts in Ohio’s major cities and rural areas don’t receive the funding they need to bring up the performance of their students to match that of students in other districts, Partridge said.

That’s because schools are funded in large part by local property taxes, so the highest-valued homes generate the greatest amount of tax money for a school district. State funding helps offset the differences.

It’s not enough, however, Partridge said.

“We’re not anywhere close to balancing out the inequities,” said Partridge, who co-authored the new study with Bo Feng, an assistant professor at West Virginia’s Marshall University and former research associate for the Swank program, and Rodrigo Perez Silva, who received his PhD from CFAES and is currently an assistant professor at the Universidad Mayor in Chile.

The study, which examined school funding in 2017, determined that 329,742 students in 34 school districts across the state require additional funds to help them achieve a passing grade.

The average funding gap per pupil, according to the study, is $32,251, which amounts to $10.6 billion a year for the state.

“That’s clearly not feasible,” Partridge said. “It’s too much money given all of the state’s other needs.”

The Ohio legislature currently is considering a proposal presented in March by Reps. Bob Cupp, R-Lima, and John Patterson, D-Jefferson, that would increase overall state funding by $700 million over two years.

While nearly half of U.S. states have reduced per-pupil spending in the last eight years, Ohio increased its spending by 5.8% between 2008 and 2016, the study shows.

Compared to other states, Ohio’s per-pupil spending is close to the national average, the study found. In 2016, the state spent $13,552 per pupil annually—$6,000 less than New York, the highest-spending state and $6,000 more than Utah and Idaho, the lowest-spending states. Ohio spent more per pupil than neighboring states including Michigan, which spent $12,506 a year per pupil.

Still, additional aid for Ohio’s poorest school districts will not only likely improve school performance but also help spur the growth of businesses in those areas of the state, Partridge said. A good public school system is critical to drawing and keeping businesses, he said.

For rural areas especially, a strong public school system can increase the likelihood that people move to the area, he said.

“Rural areas are not going to keep all their young people,” Partridge said. “But the kind of people who are more inclined to move to rural areas are in their 30s and 40s, with a family, and are interested in the local school system.”