Law & Courts

Ohio Court Rejects State School Aid System

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 08, 2003 4 min read
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It’s back to the drawing board for Ohio leaders, following the recent ruling by the state supreme court that the school aid system violates the state constitution and must be overhauled.

In its fourth and final ruling in the case, the court left it to Gov. Bob Taft and state legislators to find a resolution to the 11-year-old school finance lawsuit, called DeRolph v. State of Ohio.

It provided no deadline or enforcement mechanism, however.

In the 4-3 decision last month, the Ohio Supreme Court stated that the legislature hadn’t met the directive of the court’s first ruling, issued in 1997, to provide a “complete systematic overhaul” of the school funding system. The court said that the legislature must address the directives of the first two court rulings. The court reiterated its position that an overhaul of the system is needed, “not further nibbling at the edges.”

The ruling puts an end to the possibility that a change in the make up of the court as a result of the Nov. 5 elections would have an impact on the lawsuit’s outcome. The court made the ruling before the term for the new court began.

The decision, though, leaves the future of school funding in the Buckeye State far from certain: From the perspective of a coalition representing the plaintiffs, the final ruling is clear on how legislators should proceed, but from the state’s point of view, it is not. Some analysts even suggest that the legislature will make no changes.

Outgoing state Attorney General Betty Montgomery, who had defended the current system of funding as constitutional, characterized the Dec. 11 ruling as “somewhat less than clear.”

“While some members [of the court] appear to suggest a complete overhaul of the system is in order, others seem to feel that only minor modifications would be necessary to remedy Ohio’s school funding system,” she said in a statement.

‘A Blindfold On’

“It’s a confusing ruling,” agreed Mary Anne Sharkey, the communications director for Gov. Taft, a Republican. “The court dismissed the case. ... But they still found the system to be unconstitutional.”

Ms. Sharkey said that the governor believes he and the legislature have already addressed the problems pointed out in the first two rulings by increasing school funding, but that Mr. Taft also realizes more will have to be done. If the legislature does nothing to respond to the latest decision, she said, the state will likely face subsequent lawsuits.

“To say there isn’t any direction there [in the decision] is to put a blindfold on,” argued William L. Phillis, the executive director of the plaintiffs’ coalition, in response to contentions that the ruling wasn’t clear. He said that the high court’s first two rulings, which the final ruling said stand as law, gave plenty of direction for problems that the state needs to address.

For example, he said, the 1997 decision says that the state depends too much on local property taxes to pay for schooling, and that the formula for schools’ per-pupil funding isn’t related to the cost of an adequate education.

Mr. Phillis said his coalition of more than 550 school districts, called the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding, hadn’t yet decided what it would do if the legislature failed to respond adequately to the court’s order.

“The bottom line is,” he said, “we don’t plan to go away.”

Falling Revenues

One challenge for legislators is finding a way to change the school funding system at the same time that Ohio faces financial problems. Most people, after all, agree that changing the system will require more money.

Michael C. Shoemaker, a Democrat who served in the legislature for 20 years and lost his Senate race in November, blames the Republican-dominated legislature for promising voters not to raise taxes, thus leaving no means to raise more money for schooling.

“They ran on a platform of banning new taxes,” said the former senator of Republicans. “Now they’ve painted themselves into a very small corner with this no-tax rhetoric. It’s time they tell the public, ‘We lied to you.’”

But Richard H. Finan, a Republican who was the president of the Senate until he retired last month, said that through increasing spending for schooling and other means, legislators have already addressed the issues raised by the lawsuit, and that the supreme court is wrong.

He suggested that one solution to handling the court’s order to fix the system would be to amend the Ohio Constitution to remove from the court its authority in the matter.

“The Ohio legislature should be allowed to determine what is ‘thorough and efficient’ [as worded in the state constitution] for schools,” he argued.

One of the justices, Alice Robie Resnick, who concurred with the court’s final ruling, also suggested that the state constitution should be changed to resolve the matter.

In her written opinion, Justice Resnick said that the constitution needed to be altered so that the legislature would be forced to fix the current funding system. She suggested that the constitution be changed to include a specific dollar amount that the state would be required to spend per pupil and a formula for arriving at that number that would ensure sufficient aid for schools year after year.

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