Friday, August 15, 2003

School-funding critics again in court, ask for compliance order

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - The state's decade-old school-funding lawsuit is before a federal court two weeks after a committee started working on a new education plan for Ohio.

Gov. Bob Taft created the 33-member committee July 29 after the apparent end of legal challenges to Ohio's school-funding system.

On Thursday, however, districts that sued the state 12 years ago over how it pays for education asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

The Coalition for Equity & Adequacy in School Funding requested permission from the nation's top court to file a federal appeal.

The coalition wants the U.S. Supreme Court to order the Ohio Supreme Court to reopen the case so that Taft, a Republican, and lawmakers could be forced to comply with the state court's previous rulings to fix the funding system.

"The rights of schoolchildren are being violated and it is the duty of the courts to enforce those rights," said William Phillis, the coalition's executive director.

In May, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 5-2 to end the 1991 school funding case that led Ohio to spend billions of additional dollars on schools.

The court had ruled three times in five years that the state's educational system was unconstitutional because it created disparities between rich and poor districts.

For example, Eastern Local Schools in Meigs County in southeast Ohio spent $7,003 on each student last year and raised just 16.3 percent of the money from local residents.

By contrast, Bay Village in suburban Cleveland spent $9,622 on each student and raised 69 percent of the money from residents.

The court ordered state officials to fix the system, but then gave up jurisdiction in the case and blocked any further action in the state court system.

The lack of a means to enforce the rulings will be the main issue before the U.S. Supreme Court, Phillis said.

The state Supreme Court's earlier rulings "are now empty promises," the coalition said in its filing.

The idea that the Ohio Supreme Court could repeatedly rule in favor of the schools coalition and give orders for fixing the system, then deny the coalition the right to enforce those orders, "is wholly inconsistent with notions of ordered liberty and the rule of laws," said Nicholas Pittner, the coalition's lead attorney.

The group has to ask for permission to file a federal appeal because the school funding case originated in the state court system. The U.S. Supreme Court allows appeals in only a small percentage of cases in which there is no direct federal appeal allowed.

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