Thursday, December 19, 2002

Justice Resnick urges amending Constitution

Change might fix school funding

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Frustrated by the 11-year-old case, Alice Robie Resnick split from her fellow three Ohio Supreme Court justices when she offered a solution to the state's school funding dilemma.

She proposed amending the state Constitution to ensure that every child gets the same amount of state money for schooling no matter where they live.

"It becomes obvious that the only practical solution to the dilemma posed by this case lies with the citizens of Ohio," Justice Resnick wrote. "A constitutional amendment is necessary to remedy the General Assembly's failure to perform its responsibilities."

Experts in education policy say the justice's proposal appeared more symbolic than realistic.

"Politically speaking, the chance of getting that passed is close to nil," said Frances Fowler, an education professor at Miami University.

"She may feel there's a better chance to mobilize the public than mobilize the Legislature. But it would take quite an educational effort and quite a lot of money to mobilize the public like that."

The court voted 4-3 again last week that Ohio's funding formula must be overhauled because it relies too heavily on property taxes, creating disparities between rich and poor districts.

The justices ordered the state to comply with two of their earlier rulings, in 1997 and 2000.

"This continuing untenable situation has been allowed to endure for far too long, and far too many students have been shortchanged," Justice Resnick wrote.

Justice Resnick, a Democrat from Toledo, has been called an activist justice who makes laws rather than simply interpret them. She suggested in her written opinion that voters amend the Constitution's clause that requires the state to provide a thorough and efficient education for every child.

Justice Resnick did not return messages seeking elaboration.

However, she wrote that one possibility would be including in an amendment a specific dollar amount of state spending for each student and a funding formula for arriving at that number. That, she said, would "ensure that each district has sufficient funds to operate effectively year after year."

"I do not lightly advocate amendments to our state's Constitution," she wrote. "However, in the school-funding area, the stakes are sufficiently high that I do not hesitate to make an exception in view of the General Assembly's reluctance to act."

Senate President Richard Finan said Justice Resnick's opinion proves that the case is over, because she advocated giving up on the Legislature and turning to the public for a solution.

"Alice Robie Resnick was very clear. If that doesn't say it's over, I don't know what does," he said.

William Phillis, director of the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, said the group will first pressure lawmakers to do the jobs they were elected to do.

"The Legislature has a sworn duty to establish a through and efficient system," he said. "But if we have to go the constitutional amendment route ultimately, so be it." The coalition is made up of the 500 school districts that filed the original lawsuit in 1991.

Scott Sweetland, an education professor at Ohio State University who has written extensively about how states pay for public education, said a constitutional amendment should be the final option to changing the system.

"Frankly, I don't think it will happen," he said. "A Legislature that can't find a reasonable solution to the school funding system itself would probably have a hard time making a constitutional change about the issue."

Any changes to the state Constitution would have to go before voters. The Legislature, with a vote of three-fifths of its members, can put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, or the public can gather a required number of signatures to do the same.

Several other states have amended their constitutions as they relate to school funding, but most measures simply made education a fundamental right that states must pay for, said Alfred Hess, an education professor at Northwestern University.

Ohio's Constitution already says that.

However, Mr. Hess said, it's difficult to amend a Constitution.

"You do have to gain the support of a large constituency," he said.

That could be impossible, given that Ohio voters have spoken on the school-funding issue before and were overwhelmingly unfavorable.

In 1998, voters rejected a proposal to increase the sales tax 1 cent, to 6 cents, statewide, to fund education and property tax relief.

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