Court Rejects Ohio Finance Plan; Revives Debate on School Funding
For the second time in less than five years, Ohio leaders have vowed to challenge a court ruling declaring the state's school funding system unconstitutional.
A Feb. 26 decision, handed down by Judge Linton Lewis Jr. of the Perry County Common Pleas Court, found that reforms adopted by the legislature last year did not satisfy the terms of a March 1997 Ohio Supreme Court ruling.
Among Judge Lewis' findings was that state officials had failed to present evidence of a net increase in state education funding for fiscal 1999, once new legislative mandates for schools were factored in. The judge first ruled that the finance system did not meet constitutional requirements in July 1994, before the case known as DeRolph v. State of Ohio went to the state supreme court.
"Hearing the problems that continue to plague the schools of this state, without relief in sight, reminds this court of baseball great Yogi Berra's confused quote ...'It's like déjà vu all over again,' " Judge Lewis wrote. "The state continues to fail to provide a basic aid amount sufficient for the needs of this state's students."
Ohio's Republican leaders, including Gov. Bob Taft, say they will appeal directly to the supreme court. They contend that school finance remedies the legislature approved last spring met the high court's requirements for a "complete systematic overhaul." ("Justices Reject Ohio System of School Finance," April 2, 1997.)
Ohio's school funding situation has been in flux for some time now.
Last year, state voters rejected a ballot measure aimed at funding the reforms and new finance formula legislators had approved. The measure proposed a 1-cent sales-tax increase for schools, coupled with property-tax relief for homeowners.
Last week, critics of the plan to appeal the latest court ruling--including some Democratic lawmakers--said schoolchildren were paying the price for state delays in reaching a workable solution in the 7-year-old case.
William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding, said he was disappointed, but not surprised, that state leaders plan to appeal last month's ruling. The coalition first sued the state on behalf of schools in December 1991 and now represents more than 500 of Ohio's 611 districts.
"The state's only hope is to delay," Mr. Phillis said. "It's disappointing because justice delayed is justice denied for a whole generation of kids that have passed through the system. There's a tremendous lack of political will to accommodate the needs of children."
Since passing the funding changes last spring, lawmakers have often acknowledged the plan's imperfections, while pledging to work out its kinks in future years.
On the issue of an appeal, state leaders believe "a funding system can still be constitutional and yet have room to be improved," said Rep. Randall Gardner, a Republican and the vice chairman of the House education committee.
"If spending more money on education in the last four years matters ... if making education funding more predictable and stable matters, then the supreme court will hopefully say some positive things," Mr. Gardner added.
Vol. 18, Issue 26, Page 18