Does school funding need protection?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 17, 2005

Ohioans may get the chance to use one fundamental right - the power to vote - to mandate that a quality education be given that same level of importance.

Headed by former State Representative Bryan Flannery, the group Educate Ohio is working to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would reform the way Ohio funds its public education system. The group must acquire at least 350,000 signatures on petitions by August to get the amendment on the ballot.

Joining in the fight is the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, the group that filed a lawsuit in 1991 on behalf of Perry County student Nathan DeRolph and other students in economically challenged districts.

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Twelve years later that lawsuit lead to the declaration that Ohio’s educational funding system was and still is unconstitutional. But, the courts have never enforced the ruling and never forced change, so education advocates feel that the amendment is the only recourse.

"This would establish education as a fundamental right on par with freedom of speech and freedom of press,&uot; said William L. Phillis, executive director of the group. &uot;Theoretically, you can’t stifle freedom of speech or freedom of press here in Ironton. Likewise, the state wouldn’t be able to give kids in Ironton an inferior education if it is a fundamental right.&uot;

Phillis met with all Lawrence County school superintendents Friday to rally support and outline the plans. Not that they need much convincing to speak out against the system many educators have hoped to change.

&uot;I believe what they are doing is about rights. The funding system as it is set up is extremely inequitable,&uot; Ironton Superintendent Dean Nance said. &uot;I believe Bill Phyllis and his group are trying to do everything they can to make the state responsible for providing a quality education to students. It is a right, not a privilege, to have a quality education.&uot;

Under the current system, school districts in some of the metropolitan regions may have more than $2,000 more to spend on each student than a district like Ironton, Nance said.

So, Phillis, Flannery and others will begin the push this week for the needed signatures to get the issue on the November ballot.

If adopted by a simple majority of voters, the amendment would require the Ohio Department of Education to define a quality education, determine its actual costs and create a commission of diverse educators to reevaluate standards every two years. The plan would then require the Legislature to fund the educational system that would set the maximum property tax levels far lower than many are now in efforts to put an end to reliance on local property taxes and give all Ohio homeowners a property tax reduction, Phillis said.

"I am very optimistic. You know why? This means every property tax payer in Ohio would pay less but the schools would receive more money," he said.

So where will all the extra money come from to make their dream become a reality? As far as Phillis is concerned, that is simple – the Ohio Department of Taxation.

"The state could generate $13 billion from eliminating the tax loopholes," he said, adding that Gov. Bob Taft has outlined how antiquated the system is. "It will require the state to come up with a fair, adequate tax system."