Republican Gov. Bob Taft surprised both critics and supporters alike last week by asking the Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider certain aspects of its recent decision on the state’s school finance system—a move that could lend new life to a case already 10 years old.
On behalf of the governor, Assistant Attorney General Mary Lynn Ready filed a motion Sept. 17 asking the state’s highest court to re-examine its 4-3 decision that allows to stand Ohio’s way of paying for schools, but requires the state to raise spending on education substantially.
The motion claims flawed data led the justices to demand too much of the state—up to $1.2 billion in new education spending over the next two years, adding to a $1.4 billion package of school funding increases approved by lawmakers in the spring.
In asking the court to reconsider, the motion also invokes the fiscal uncertainty exacerbated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington.
“The economic pressures upon the legislative and budgetary process of the past year are magnified in these trying and uncertain times,” Ms. Ready argues in her motion.
Policymakers and education advocates of various stripes were bewildered by the governor’s politically risky decision to ask the court to change its mind.
Speaker of the House Larry Householder, for example, opposed the move, saying it could reopen a school finance case that everyone thought was over. (“School Finance System Upheld by Ohio Court,” Sept. 12, 2001)
“We have before us a decision that brings an end to the school funding lawsuit. Bringing that decision back to the court for recourse opens the door possibly for moving backward,” said Jennifer Detweiler, a spokeswoman for the Republican House speaker.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, generally favor more school aid, especially since the state is setting new academic standards by next year and has a detailed accountability system in place.
William L. Phillis, who heads a group of 500-plus school districts that sued the state, said he was startled by the governor’s motion and expects the ruling to stand.
“The integrity of the court is at stake,” said Mr. Phillis, the executive director of the Columbus-based Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which sued the state in 1991.
A Broader Review?
If the court agrees to reconsider the case, Mr. Phillis said his group would ask the justices to revisit parts of the decision beyond those cited by the governor—including the go-ahead the court gave the state to rely on property taxes to pay for schools. Earlier high court decisions in the case, handed down in 1997 and 2000, had instructed the state to ease its dependence on property taxes as the main source of money for education.
Mr. Phillis said his group also wants the court to order a full overhaul of the finance system, which the court demanded from lawmakers in its earlier decisions. “I fail to see what the state hopes to gain by asking for reconsideration,” he said.
“Basically, I believe the state is nit-picking and once again trying to find any means of driving down the cost of education finance reform,” said Debbie Phillips, the coordinator of the Rural School and Community Organizing Project, a group based in Athens, Ohio, that is helping push for greater education financing.
Gov. Taft said in a statement that his request for review is justified. He contends that some of the data used in the court’s judgment was inaccurate, and that the state should consider the state’s manufacturing slowdown and the terrorist attacks as part of the mix.
What’s more, the state could save huge sums of money if the court does reconsider. In their opinions, justices estimated their requirements could cost Ohio hundreds of millions of dollars in new school spending. But they gave no precise estimates, leaving that up to the legislative branch.
“Given the importance of this issue, I believe we must do everything possible to ensure we are making an informed decision based on accurate, up-to-date information,” the governor said.
The lawsuit, DeRolph v. State of Ohio, was named for a parent in rural Perry County who sued on behalf of his son, a student in the local public schools when the suit was filed. Since then, Ohio lawmakers have seen the court reject two proposals to overhaul the finance system. This time, in the ruling released Sept. 6, the court went softer on lawmakers.
The court was bitterly divided in its latest decision, and all seven judges issued their own opinions in the case.
Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, in a concurring majority opinion, said the court had struck “a pragmatic compromise to resolve an impasse that I believe has been divisive for too long.”
The court has no deadline for when it must decide on the governor’s request.
Mr. Phillis, whose group of school districts had until Sept. 24 to file a response to the state’s motion, said nobody watching the case can know where the case is headed.
“It will probably give legal scholars pause for a number of years,” he said.