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Ohio High Court Hears Arguments in Finance Case

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The fate of Ohio's school-finance system, the target of a long-running legal battle that has been watched across the country, now rests in the hands of just seven people.

That select group, the state's supreme court justices, heard arguments on the case last month and is expected to hand down a decision before the end of the year. At issue is whether the finance system, which uses a combination of locally generated tax revenue and state money, passes muster under the state constitution.

The state education department estimates that spending per pupil ranges from roughly $3,000 to $12,000 in districts around Ohio. The state's contribution to each district, a figure that varies between districts based on an aid formula, averages around $3,500.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, a coalition of 500 school districts that filed the original lawsuit in 1991, argue that students in the districts with the lowest spending per pupil are not receiving the adequate education that they are guaranteed by law.

William L. Phillis, the executive director of the coalition that sued the state, said that not only does the state's contribution to districts need to be "ratcheted up tremendously," but the state also needs to commit more money to school-building improvements and professional development.

The state's current efforts to address inequities "are so woefully inadequate that it's humorous," argued Mr. Phillis, a former assistant state schools superintendent.

But Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich has vigorously defended Ohio's system. He pointed out that since the suit was filed, the state has increased its contribution to all school districts, boosted spending on technology and facilities, and directed additional money to poorer districts.

In addition, the governor warned that the kind of spending increases called for in the suit could necessitate tax increases in the billions of dollars.

"We stand firm in our belief that state funding is constitutional," Tom Needles, the governor's education adviser, said last week.

Cases Pending

Ohio is not alone in waiting for a court decision on its school-finance system. New Hampshire held a long trial on the issue earlier this year, and officials there are awaiting a judge's ruling. Illinois officials have been waiting a year to hear the result of a motion to dismiss a school-finance challenge.

Meanwhile, legislators in New Jersey are slowly working on a new finance system in response to a court order to revamp the state's funding for schools. The state supreme court there has given lawmakers until December to finish their work.

Lawmakers in Arizona also spent part of the past year putting together a school-finance fix--focusing on facilities funds--in response to a court challenge. And in Wyoming, a special task force is examining a host of education issues in response to a sweeping state supreme court decision that gave lawmakers until next July to overhaul their education system.

Urban Districts' Concerns

In Ohio, the supreme court last decided a school-finance case in 1979. The high court ruled then that Ohio's schools provided a "thorough and efficient" education required by the state constitution.

The most recent step in the current court challenge, DeRolph v. State of Ohio, et al., occurred in 1995, when an Ohio appeals court declared that little had changed in school conditions or funding since the supreme court's 1979 ruling and that the finance system was thus constitutional.

That ruling marked a rejection of a lower court's 1994 finding that Ohio students get an inadequate education because schools are underfunded by the state. ("Court Upholds School-Finance System in Ohio," Sept. 13, 1995.)

But regardless of the high court's upcoming decision, Ohio policymakers will still be faced with growing funding problems for urban schools.

A report last June prepared by the Ohio Public Expenditure Council, a Columbus-based nonpartisan research organization, showed that local funding for the state's 21 urban districts was growing more slowly than funding in the rest of the state. Additional local financial support would become more difficult to generate as time goes on, the report concluded.

"If the state loses the court case, then there will have to be a lot of attention focused on those districts for a number of reasons," said Donald C. Berno, the president of the council. "If the state wins the court case, you're still going to have to focus a lot of attention on those districts.

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