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Court Upholds School-Finance System in Ohio

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An Ohio appeals court has ruled that the state's school-finance system is constitutional, saying lawmakers, not judges, should make decisions about school funding.

"The taxpayers of this state should rise up in righteous indignation," said Judge W. Don Reader in his concurring opinion, "and tell all the parties in this case to take their truckloads of paper and solutions, if any, to where it would do the most good: the General Assembly of the state of Ohio."

The 2-1 decision by the three-judge panel will be appealed to the state supreme court, according to a spokesman for the coalition of 500 school districts that filed the original suit against the state in 1991. Lawyers for the coalition had argued successfully in a lower court that Ohio students get an inadequate education because schools are underfunded by the state. (See Education Week, July 13, 1994.)

Gov. George V. Voinovich hailed the Aug. 30 ruling that overrode the earlier decision. He had warned that court intervention would have forced the state to increase taxes dramatically.

The appellate decision "is a grand slam for the taxpayers of Ohio," Mr. Voinovich, a Republican, said in a written statement. "I am happiest for the taxpayers of Ohio, who today have avoided a court-ordered, multibillion-dollar tax increase."

But William L. Phillis, the executive director of the coalition that sued the state, said the appeals judges' analysis of the case was full of holes.

"It was almost as if they resented this matter even coming before their court," Mr. Phillis said. "They just bucked it on up to the supreme court without giving it much thought at all."

16 Years Later

The high court does not have to accept the case for review, but school funding has become such a contentious issue in the state that the seven-judge court is expected to take it up.

The state Senate this year passed a plan to shift some school funds from wealthier districts to poorer ones, but the bill did not clear the House.

In 1979, the last time the state supreme court heard a school-finance suit, it ruled that Ohio's schools provided a "thorough and efficient" education, as required by the state constitution.

The appeals court in its decision declared that little has changed in school conditions or funding in the 16 years since that ruling.

The funding formula today is more fair and "assures that all districts have funding to meet the basic standards," said Judge John W. Wise, who wrote the majority opinion.

"It would appear the issue for the General Assembly to decide is whether insufficient funds exist or whether the existing funds are inefficiently used in the operation of the schools," he said.

Judge W. Scott Gwin dissented from the majority opinion and noted what he called the poor condition of K-12 education facilities in the state as proof that schools are underfunded.

"The Ohio Constitution mandates that the legislature raise sufficient revenue ... to provide a thorough and efficient system of schools," he said. "Ohio's schools are not thorough and efficient."

Some state leaders, however, argued that the legislature in recent years has increased school spending dramatically. Within a year, state aid will average $3,500 per pupil, close to the $4,000-per-pupil level recommended by the state school board, said Sen. Cooper Snyder, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

"We'll probably be at $4,000 before the supreme court even decides on this case," he said.

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