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Judge Rejects State Finance System in Ohio

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An Ohio judge has struck down the state's school-finance system, ruling that a 1979 decision by the state supreme court that upheld the system is no longer valid.

Changes in the finance system over the past 15 years, as well as changes in what is expected of Ohio students, led to what observers called a strong verdict for the 500 school districts that brought the case to court.

"The measure of education has never been viewed as a static measure,'' Perry County Common Pleas Court Judge Linton D. Lewis Jr. said in his July 1 ruling. "Today we live in a high-tech world; a world that is becoming more technologically advanced at a rapid pace.''

Gov. George V. Voinovich quickly asked the attorney general to appeal the decision.

Ted Sanders, the Ohio superintendent of public instruction, said he will comply with the judge's call for a report on how the state can overhaul the finance system. He added his own reservations, however, noting that Judge Lewis's order "goes far beyond anything we have previously recommended.''

Ohio joins a growing number of states where school officials have asked courts to force lawmakers to alter the way they pay for education.

In Ohio, as in most other states, the bulk of school funding is derived from local property taxes, and districts with higher property values can raise more money for their schools than areas with little property wealth can. In 1991, per-pupil spending in Ohio districts ranged from $2,800 to $12,000.

In his lengthy decision, Judge Lewis found particular fault with the state's funding of facilities and special-education programs, in addition to decrying disparities in the general school-aid program.

"This court saw grown men and women cry as they explained the conditions and situations in which some of the youth of this state are educated,'' the judge said. "They deserve better, and the state as their bridge builders to the future are duty bound to provide them with better tools for a successful life. The law requires the same.''

"While some of the plaintiff school districts must ration paper, paper clips, and use out-of-date textbooks, our wealthier districts are able to provide violin classes in the 2nd grade and have contests through computer networks,'' Judge Lewis wrote.

'Everything We Asked'

Organizers who launched the legal challenge to the finance system in 1991 said the ruling was a complete victory.

"We received from the court everything we asked,'' said William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy. "But whether the evidence had been viewed by Judge Lewis, a group of parents, or anybody else, I think they would have come to the same decision that the system is not working and that kids in this state are prisoners of geography.''

State officials had argued that the 1979 supreme court ruling deemed the school-finance issue a matter for the legislature to handle, and they cited the importance of local funding and control of schools.

But those arguments held little sway with Judge Lewis.

"Local control in many of this state's school districts and specifically in the plaintiff school districts is a cruel illusion,'' the judge wrote. "The fact that some districts have the 'ability' to determine how dollars are spent in some circumstances is a hollow argument when there are not sufficient funds to provide for the educational and facility needs of their particular school district.''

The judge cited a report that identified $10 billion in school-building needs across the state, as well as state estimates that local districts need $328 million for asbestos removal and $153 million to make schools accessible to disabled students. These reports, he said, are strong signs that the state's school-funding effort is far from adequate.

He also questioned the state's school-equity fund, its primary effort to address spending disparities.

'More Ploy Than Solution'

Supporters of the lawsuit said that the $75 million equity fund stands as a symbol of how little the state has done to address wide gaps in spending power.

"It has been more of a ploy than a solution,'' Mr. Phillis said.

In Muskingum County, which surrounds Zanesville, schools have generally used the equity money for building maintenance or to buy textbooks. Larry Miller, the county superintendent, said that until the state has a permanent funding program that incorporates equity factors, most poor districts will be reluctant to develop new programs or hire additional teachers.

But he sees the ruling as a sign that funding patterns may change.

"Ohio's General Assembly ultimately is going to have to go to work and deal with an education-funding system that has been remiss for at least a decade,'' Mr. Miller said.

The decision in Perry County, however, has also stirred fears among some education officials who have watched court-ordered school-finance changes lead to protracted battles with questionable benefit in states like Texas and New Jersey.

"In the simplest translation, this means legislating a tax increase to fund a bigger pie and inviting Robin Hood to the table,'' said Mr. Sanders, the Ohio schools chief.

He noted that some administrators in wealthy districts fear that the only way the state can solve the problem is by forcing them to share their local revenue with poorer districts.

On a national scale, school-finance experts said the Ohio decision may encourage plaintiffs in other states where poor districts were previously turned away by the courts to renew legal efforts.

"It was very important to hear the judge say that precedence only applies if the facts have not changed,'' said Kern Alexander, the president of Murray (Ky.) State University, who testified as a finance expert in the Ohio case.

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