Education Funding

Supreme Court Declines Ohio School Finance Case

By Caroline Hendrie — October 29, 2003 4 min read
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This time, it’s really over.

After 12 years of litigation that resulted in Ohio’s school finance system being declared in violation of the state constitution on four separate occasions, the U.S. Supreme Court last week let stand a ruling that closed the books on the marathon funding fight.

Disappointing a coalition of school groups led by the National School Boards Association, the court declined without comment to review a lower-court decision that blocked the plaintiffs from keeping the case alive until the state actually fixes the constitutional violations.

A clear win for the state, the Supreme Court’s action on Oct. 20 in DeRolph v. Ohio (Case No. 03-245) creates a situation that some legal experts say is highly unusual.

In declaring an end to the case last May, the Ohio Supreme Court reiterated that the legislature had a “duty” to bring the funding system into line with the state constitution, but also that the courts were to play no further role in enforcing the directive.

“I’m not aware of any situation where a high court has said a funding law is unconstitutional, but we’re not going to do anything to enforce our ruling when there has been noncompliance,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a Newark, N.J.-based advocacy group that successfully sued to overhaul New Jersey’s education funding system. “That scenario is unheard of anywhere else in the country.”

But state officials said the U.S. Supreme Court’s action keeps the problem of how to pay for schools exactly where it belongs: in the hands of the state legislature and the governor.

12-Year-Old Lawsuit

Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, said he was awaiting the findings of a blue-ribbon commission he appointed last summer, which he said was “working diligently to reach consensus on school funding improvements.”

“The DeRolph case is over,” Gov. Taft said in a statement last week. “But we still need to improve our school funding system to assure that every Ohio child is given the opportunity to receive a quality education.”

On four occasions, first in 1997 and most recently last December, Ohio’s highest court has declared that the method of paying for schools does not comply with the Ohio Constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” public education system. Among the problems cited was what the court deemed to be an overreliance on local property taxes, a structure that contributes to spending disparities between rich and poor districts.

Those rulings came in a lawsuit filed in 1991 by the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy, a Columbus-based group that represents more than 500 school districts. They include most of the state’s urban and rural school systems as well as some suburban districts. The case is named for Dale R. DeRolph, the parent of a student in one of five districts named as plaintiffs in the suit.

Although the state says it has sharply increased funding for schools, including through a major construction initiative, the coalition argues that officials have done far too little.

“The state was ordered to overhaul the entire school funding system,” said William L. Phillis, the coalition’s executive director. “They didn’t do it.”

In striking down the state’s funding system for the final time last December, the state supreme court made clear that it considered the case closed.

But to push for the changes it believed necessary, last March the coalition asked a state trial court to schedule a conference to address the state’s compliance with the state supreme court’s earlier orders. The state responded by asking the state supreme court justices to bar the lower court from taking any further action in the case, and they did so. (“Ohio Court Declares End to DeRolph School Funding Case,” May 28, 2003.)

14th Amendment Issue

In their brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the plaintiffs argued that the state court had violated Ohio schoolchildren’s 14th Amendment rights to equal protection and due process under the law by ending the case without ensuring that the deficiencies in the financing system would be remedied.

For their part, Ohio officials contended that the plaintiffs had no business being in federal court on what was clearly a state matter.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, several school groups, led by the National School Boards Association, had argued that DeRolph‘s outcome set a bad precedent for other states.

“Without enforcement state legislatures will be able to sit idly by and not make the tough political and economic choices necessary to invest sufficiently in the children of their state,” the brief said. For that reason, the brief argued, the case held major implications for “not only 1.8 million students in the state of Ohio, but also potentially 47 million students nationwide.”

Although the DeRolph case is closed, Mr. Phillis of the Ohio coalition said last week that the group was reviewing its legal options and was by no means ruling out a new funding suit in the future.

“We’re not going to go away,” he said.

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