Saturday, June 16, 2001

Court to decide funding fate

Group says formula is flawed, but Taft stands behind plan

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — When the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the General Assembly to fix its school funding system, lawmakers were told to find the solution first and a way to pay for it last.

        As majority Republicans prepare to defend a two-year $1.4 billion plan before the Ohio Supreme Court, the coalition of schools suing the state says lawmakers did things backward.

        An analysis the schools group filed Friday accuses lawmakers of tinkering with a formula they said would fund an adequate education but not break the state bank.

        Decisions lawmakers made in setting up the formula cut $794 million in potential spending, said Bill Phillis, leader of the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding. The group successfully sued the state twice; Mr. Mr. Phillis is predicting a third victory.

        “Any time the state gets a number it doesn't like, it buries it,” Mr. Phillis said. “It's gone.”

        Those comments come as the focus on the school funding case shifts from the Legislature to the high court. Justices started work Friday when the coalition and the Ohio attorney general delivered 10 boxes of documents, computer disks and video tapes to be used as evidence.

        The central issue:

        Does the $1.4 billion plan effectively reduce the gap between Ohio's poor and rich schools? Written arguments answering that question will be filed Monday;oral arguments follow Wednesday.

        Seven boxes of evidence filed by the Ohio attorney general include the public work of several school-funding panels and testimony from experts who helped craft the $1.4 billion plan.

        The money would help raise school districts' minimum per-pupil spending from $4,294 to $4,814 in the 2001-02 school year. In 2002-'03 that spending climbs to $4,949 per student.

        An additional $300 million would help poor schools offer programs wealthier districts pay for with local property taxes. Gov. Bob Taft praised the plan Friday.

        “We have done everything that we know how to do to put in place a first-rate system to enable every child to succeed in the state of Ohio,” Mr. Taft said. “I believe we have complied with the Ohio Supreme Court decisions.”

        Three boxes of evidence filed by the schools coalition are intended to punch holes in that argument. One of the biggest hits comes in a coalition analysis of the funding formula.

        That formula examines how much is spent by school districts meeting at least 20 of 27 performance standards. Those standards are based on student test scores.

        Of the 163 school districts that meet these standards, 43 schools among the state's wealthiest and poorest — 5 percent — were screened out. The formula then adds another seven schools that met, at most, 19 of 27 standards.

        Of the total 127 districts used, per-pupil figures for 66 schools were based on what they spent in 1996 and adjusted for inflation. Other districts' spending estimates were based on 1999 estimates.

        If not for these changes, the coalition contends, next year's per-pupil spending would be $5,133 instead of $4,814. The higher per-pupil spending figure would require $397 million more a year.

        One of the principal authors of the school funding plan, Sen. Jeff Jacobson, R-Dayton, insists the formula guarantees an adequate education for every student. He said the Ohio Supreme Court should agree.

        The decision to screen out wealthy and poor districts has been accepted by the Supreme Court in past decisions. He said the seven lower-performing school districts added to the formula were close to achieving 20 of 27 standards.

        The decision to use lower cost estimates for 66 schools reflects the fact that those districts were meeting most state standards with less money in 1996.

        “Then they got a lot of money in 1999,” Mr. Jacobson said. “The question is how much does it take to achieve adequacy in education? Those districts achieved it in 1996.”


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