Law & Courts

Ohio Court Declares End To DeRolph School Funding Case

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 28, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 2 min read
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Corrected: Robert A. Gardner is the Republican who chairs the education comittee of the state Senate. We accidentally misspelled his name in this story.

The Ohio Supreme Court has issued its final decision on a state school funding case that has persisted for 12 years.

In the May 16 ruling, the court reiterated its judgment in several previous rulings that the system for financing education violates the state constitution, and that the duty to fix the problem lies with the legislature. (“Ohio Court Rejects State School Aid System,” Jan. 8, 2003.)

But in its 5-2 final ruling, the court also made clear that the long-running case was over—that neither the state high court itself or “any other court” has jurisdiction over the case. That declaration leaves the plaintiffs no mechanism, at least as far as the court is concerned, to ensure that the current unconstitutional system is fixed.

“It’s like the court said, ‘You are guilty but you are free,’” said William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Columbus-based Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which filed the lawsuit against the state, called DeRolph v. State of Ohio, in 1991.

He said the chances that the legislature would fix the current funding system were slim now, given that the legislature didn’t fundamentally fix the system during the years that the court maintained jurisdiction over the case.

The final ruling was a response to an effort by the plaintiffs to get a lower-court judge—Perry County Common Pleas Court Judge Linton D. Lewis Jr.— to supervise a conference on how the legislature would comply with the supreme court’s judgment.

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro asked the supreme court to deny that request. In its final ruling, the court clarified that indeed the case was over and no further action regarding it should occur in any state court.

Not in Vain

Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, recognizes that he and the legislature have the responsibility to make sure the state’s education system is “thorough and efficient,” as required by the Ohio Constitution, said Ann Husted, his communications director.

But “on the same level,” she added, “the governor has the constitutional responsibility to balance the budget.” The budget for fiscal 2004 is now being debated in the state Senate.

Sen. Robert Garner, a Republican who is the chairman of the Senate education committee, said the legislature has already done a lot in the past 10 years to address the problems with the funding system.

He argued, for example, that per-pupil funding for Ohio public school students has more than doubled since the DeRolph lawsuit was filed. And while from 1954 to 1997, the state spent only $174 million on school facilities, it has spent $3.6 billion on such facilities since 1997. “The urgency is over,” Mr. Garner said.

Mr. Phillis, whose group represents the plaintiffs, cited some of the same figures to demonstrate that the plaintiffs had not undertaken the DeRolph lawsuit in vain.

The state would never have increased its spending on school facilities to the extent that it did if his coalition hadn’t filed the lawsuit, Mr. Phillis asserted.

In addition, he said, the case caused the state to clarify that the legislature’s obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to Ohio’s schoolchildren meant providing a high-quality education, not simply keeping school doors open.

However, he said, the state never did what the court had ordered it to do in its decisions.

“There’s been no structural change in the funding,” Mr. Phillis said. He added that lawmakers have failed to tie the funding level with the actual cost of providing a high-quality education.

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