This Friday is the deadline the Ohio Supreme Court set for state lawmakers to come up with a better way to pay for public schools. As it happens, the Republican-controlled General Assembly brought its proposed fix in a little over two weeks early, in time to prepare documents and arguments to take before the high court once again. This will be the third time Ohio's method of funding education comes under judicial scrutiny, in a legal battle that has spanned a decade. 90.3 WCPN's Bill Rice looks back on the DeRolph lawsuit that took the school funding issue all the way to the state's highest court.
Bill Rice- The 1996 PBS special Children of America's Schools was aired one year prior to the Ohio Supreme Court Decision in the case of DeRolph vs. State of Ohio. The program was based on the 1991 book by Jonathan Kozol titled "Savage Inequalities." Kozol's book and the Bill Moyers special brought much attention to the DeRolph lawsuit, providing a sobering, up-close look at the deplorable school conditions that persist in many districts across America.
The one-hour documentary singled out Ohio's schools to illustrate inequities between high-wealth suburban school districts and cash-strapped inner city and rural districts. At that time the program aired a district judge had ruled Ohio's method of funding schools was unconstitutional. Bill Phyllis was the head of the Coalition that brought suit against the state and won.
Bill Phyllis- The constitution is very clear. It says that the General Assembly shall make such provisions by taxation as will provide a thorough and efficient system of Public Schools throughout the state. The buck stops at the state.
BR- That's Phyllis in the town-hall-style telecast that immediately followed the Moyers program.
The DeRolph case was another example of a battle over school funding that's been waged state by state across the nation. Steven Sugarman is a law professor at the University of California who was, himself, involved in the very first such lawsuits in the 1970s.
Steven Sugarman- More than 40 of the states in the last thirty-some years have had litigation in which lawyers have sought to declare the system of funding of education in public schools unconstitutional under the state constitution, and about half those states - about 20 - the courts have gone along with that and at least provisionally ordered some kinds of changes to be made.
BR- Lawyers have made their cases against individual states based on two constitutional arguments, Sugarman says. One rests on the principle of equal protection - suggesting that poor people are entitled to the same privileges of citizenship as everyone else, and that a quality education is one of those privileges. An early case, which Sugarman himself helped file against the state of Texas, went this route, and ultimately landed in the U.S. Supreme Court.
SS- And the court said education is important, but it's nowhere stated in the Constitution, it's not like the right of free speech. And so there is no constitutional right to education. And equal protection - everyone's allowed to go to school and that's enough. 5-4 vote that it doesn't violate the U.S. Constitution.
BR- Ever since then, Sugarman says, all further lawsuits have been brought in state courts, and most have employed the second major argument - that the funding system violates the state constitutions education provision. The DeRolph case was filed in 1991. Three years later Perry County Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis decided in favor of Bill Phylliss' school coalition, which had argued Ohio's method of funding education violated the state's "thorough and efficient" clause. Lewis's decision was overturned on appeal, and the case arrived at the Ohio Supreme Court in January of 1996. Jonathan Entin is professor of Constitutional Law at Case Western University.
Jonathan Entin- An issue like the validity of the mechanism of funding public education in the state is such an important one that the court was almost certain to take the case.
BR- In 1997 The Ohio Supreme Court upheld Judge Lewis' original decision, and instructed the legislature to come up with a better method of funding education. That began the tense dance between the court and state lawmakers that continues to this day. By 1998 the legislature - firmly under GOP control - had come up with what they considered a suitable solution.
JE- So the parties went back to judge Lewis, and they argued whether the new system they had in place dealt with the problems the Supreme Court had identified.
BR- Namely, Entin says, an over-reliance on local property taxes as the primary funding source for public education.
JE- Once again judge Lewis said no, and the case now comes back to the Supreme Court. And in 1999 the Supreme Court said go back to the drawing board and do it right, or at least do it better than you've done up to now.
BR- The justices gave a new deadline to submit another new plan, this time by-passing Common Pleas Judge Lewis. That deadline is Friday, and the plan is in place. The two-year budget just signed by Governor Taft includes $1.4 billion infusion into state education coffers. How the court will rule on the funding fix is the subject of much - and varied - speculation. We'll pick up with that aspect of the story tomorrow. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.