Saturday, February 27, 1999

Ohio fails school-funding test

State hasn't complied with court order, judge rules

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ohio's school funding system is as unconstitutional now as it was when state officials were ordered to fix it five years ago, a state judge ruled Friday.

        The decision will be appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. But as it stands, it means Ohio's public education officials and the state legislature will have to start anew to come up with a way to bridge the financial gap between rich and poor students by the end of this year.

        Judge Linton Lewis Jr., the Perry County common pleas judge who declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional in 1994, said the state's efforts to comply have thus far failed to cure the inequities the court found in the school funding system the state has used since the 1970s.

        “It's like deja vu all over again,” the judge wrote in his decision, using a line once attributed to baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.

        Judge Lewis' original decision was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court in a landmark 1997 decision that found the state's school funding system unconstitutional. The supreme court gave the state a year to fix it and for Judge Lewis to conduct the first legal review. Because the state will appeal, Friday's ruling will have no immediate impact on Ohio's 611 public school districts.

        The judge, however, ordered the state superintendent to present a new funding plan to the Ohio General Assembly and gave the legislature until the end of this year to pass one that meets the court's requirements.

  The five districts in Southwest Ohio with the highest adjusted spending per pupil and the five districts with the lowest adjusted spending per pupil in 1996-97 school year :

Princeton $8,931
Indian Hill $8,190
Lockland $7,504
Mariemont $7,270
Sycamore $7,391

Mason $4,628
Lebanon $4,629
West Clermont $4,706
Oak Hills $4,771
Springboro $4,844

Source: Ohio Department of Education, Information Management Services (IMS)

        The judge's decision continues a battle that has been raging since 1991, when a coalition of 500 Ohio school districts sued the state in rural Perry County in Southeast Ohio.

        Ohio Department of Education officials said Friday they are studying the judge's decision, in consultation with lawyers from Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery's office.

        “All school districts in Ohio should be assured that the Department of Education will continue to flow school foundation payments as scheduled,” James Van Keuren, the interim superintendent of public instruction, said in a written statement.

        The three top Republicans in state government — Gov. Bob Taft, Senate President Richard Finan and House Speaker Joann Davidson — issued a joint statement in defense of the state.

        “We believe that our efforts have met the Supreme Court's mandate to reform Ohio's system of school funding; and that our remedies will be found constitutional,” it said.

        The three also said they “look forward to getting beyond discussions of money and moving forward to solve the real challenge of improving academic achievement for all students.”

        But money is at the root of the problems Judge Lewis found with the legislature's attempt to comply.

        Judge Lewis and the Ohio Supreme Court wanted state school officials and the legislature to devise a plan that would close the financial gap between poor and wealthy districts, reduce the dependence on local property taxes, lessen the need for school districts to borrow money and spend more on improving school facilities.

        After Ohioans rejected, 5-to-1, a sales-tax increase for the schools last spring, the Ohio General Assembly passed a package that included increased spending per pupil, provided a larger subsidy for special education and transportation, and set aside $1.6 billion for school repair and replacement.

        The legislature also enacted tougher academic standards and created “report cards” detailing school performance and required school dis tricts to set aside 13 percent of their budgets for textbooks and maintenance.

        But the legislature did not come up with a new funding formula. While it increased funding, it did nothing to eliminate the disparities between wealthy and poor districts, and made barely a dent in the estimated $16 billion school facilities problem.

        Judge Lewis said that the plan passed by the legislature last year failed even to bring the state's spending per pupil up to the level recommended by the panel of experts it had hired.

        The state's experts recommended $4,269 per pupil. The plan adopted by the legislature set a figure of $3,851 in 1999, rising to $4,063 by 2002.

        “The General Assembly cannot merely express in legislation that the amount of funding is adequate,” Judge Lewis wrote.

        Judge Lewis' order said the “inevitable result” of the legislature's plan will be “a continued requirement for local school districts to rely upon voters to fund their schools.”

        David Zanotti, chairman of the Ohio Roundtable, a group that fought the sales-tax increase last year, said Ohio Taxpayers “are getting real sick of this.”

        “Putting the fate of 11 million people in one state in the hands of one judge in Perry County is ridiculous,” Mr. Zanotti said.

        “The legislature should stand up and put a stop to this and tell the courts this issue is clearly in our hands and the hands of the voters in school districts who are asked to vote on tax levies,” he said. “The courts have to get out of this.”

        But critics of the present system say the legislature has failed to wean schools from relying on local property taxes, which have enabled some schools to spend $12,000 per student while others struggle to spend half that amount. Critics also say the state hasn't done enough to fix crumbling school buildings, dubbed the worst in the 50 states by a 1996 federal study.

        “What we have here is business as usual,” said Nicholas Pittner, lead attorney for the coalition of school districts that brought the suit against the state in 1991. “The state had 172 months to fix this system and it has utterly failed.”

        Reporter Michael Hawthorne and the Associated Press contributed.

- Ohio fails school-funding test
What the state did, didn't do
Chronology of Ohio school funding
Levies aren't the answer, educators say

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