School funding fix would let judges off

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 20, 2005

The Educate Ohio Campaign hopes to do something the Ohio Supreme Court has refused to do - fix the state's unfair educational funding system.

The initiative, spearheaded by the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, 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 collect 322,899 petition signatures by August.

Although well-intentioned and certainly an improvement over what we have now, a constitutional amendment would only sidestep a big problem:

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the Ohio Supreme Court refuses to enforce its own decision. Before we go adding amendments, let's make the judges enforce what is already in place.

The coalition, made up of most of Ohio's 613 school districts, filed a lawsuit in 1991 on behalf of Perry County student Nathan DeRolph and other students in economically challenged districts. Not only did they win the initial suit but they actually won three more times on appeals.

So, four times the Ohio Supreme Court has declared that the school-funding formula is unconstitutional, pointing to an overreliance on local property taxes because districts in economically challenged regions have a tougher time generating revenue.

And each time the governor, the Legislature and other leaders have basically laughed in the judges' faces. Therein lies the problem.

Is the state short of money? Certainly. Would it be difficult to make the needed changes? Absolutely. Does that mean the state should just turn a blind eye? Not a chance.

State leaders need to be held accountable, but so do the judges. What would happen if Joe Citizen went to court and was told he had to fix some past wrong by handing out an extra $100?

If he couldn't correct the problem, would the judge just say, "OK, we understand that now might be a bad time." Nope. Joe Citizen would likely be tossed in jail or hit with hefty fines.

If adopted, the proposed constitutional amendment would require the Ohio Department of Education to define "quality education," determine its actual costs and create a commission to reevaluate standards every two years. The plan would then require the Legislature to fund the educational system.

Supporters of the plan say the state would have the additional money for this plan if it revamped the tax system. Opponents say the plan is a scam that doesn't explain exactly where the extra revenue will come from and will ultimately come back on taxpayers.

Even if the changes were adopted, it may not fix anything. It takes the high court to enforce the constitution. We already see how that is working out.