For more than a decade education activists waged a legal battle to change the way schools are funded in Ohio. The court case commonly known as DeRolph essentially ended in a draw. The Ohio Supreme Court found Ohio's reliance on local property taxes as the primary funding source to be unconstitutional. It then relinquished its jurisdiction over the matter, and neither the republican-controlled legislature nor the governor have shown any inclination to change the tax structure in any significant way. But the funding question is still alive in Columbus, as evidenced in a session at the Ohio School Boards Association's annual conference this week. ideastream's Bill Rice was there.
The session was billed as a legislative panel discussion on school issues, but there were no legislators present - not surprising perhaps, since it fell on Veteran's Day. But five members of Governor Bob Taft's recently formed Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing Student Success did show, and school funding from a tax reform perspective quickly took center stage.
John Brandt: Good afternoon everybody, I appreciate the chance to be with you here this afternoon.
John Brandt, Executive Director of the Ohio School Boards Association was the first to address the audience of about 40, most from the western suburbs of Cleveland. Brandt wasted no time in raising the funding issue.
John Brandt: I don't think anybody really believes that we have a good, objective, data-based mechanism for really looking at the needs of students, and then funding a system that meets those needs.
Brandt then proposed precisely the kind of dramatic tax change that lawmakers resisted throughout ten years of DeRolph. The OSBA, he said, wants the state to take full responsibility for funding schools. And it recommends repealing local property taxes and adopting a statewide property tax to do it. Such a plan, Brandt said, would raise more education dollars, and would end the need for local districts to repeatedly turn to their voters for more money. But he admits making the change won't be easy.
John Brandt: Taxation and taxation issues and the way various classes of property are taxed are very tricky things in Ohio law, and probably the best way to make that happen would be to at the appropriate point amend the Ohio Constitution to do that.
Given the failure in the past of such proposals like a statewide property tax, one might view the OSBA plan as little more than a pipedream left over from the DeRolph era. But today's economic climate gives others besides Brandt hope for eventually moving in that general direction. Richard Maxwell heads the Buckeye Association of School Administrators and is also a member of the Governor's commission.
Richard Maxwell: We are on the verge, I'm afraid, of some really serious financial problems in the state.
And that's evident in what's happening in local school districts. Statewide, the success rate of local school levy proposals was low in the most recent elections. It was even worse, Maxwell says, when you consider that many of those that did pass were simply renewals of expired levies. In terms of new money approved by voters, he says, the results were dismal.
Richard Maxwell: My guess is that overall we're talking about only a twenty to twenty five percent success rate in this recent election. That doesn't bode well.
Maxwell sees school funding as reaching crisis proportions. And times of crisis, he believes, are historically ripe times for change.
Richard Maxwell: My mentor a long time ago, a good friend of mine now gone, Oliver O'Casey, said to me a long time ago Dick we only have the real courage to do these kinds of things every decade or so. I even did some research on that and can even point to the days - 1935, 1948, 1955, 1968, 1975… and you the interesting part is all of those occurred during bad economic times.
But whether any radical tax and funding change for schools stand any more of a chance now than in the recent past is, at best, questionable. One panel member, while stopping short of dismissing such possibilities, clearly downplays such lofty expectations. He is Paulo Demaria - chief policy advisor to Governor Taft.
Paulo Demaria: The real challenge is to build consensus. If you have something that the education community supports but the business community doesn't support, it's not going to happen. If you have something that the business community supports but the education community doesn't support, than it's likely not to happen.
And if both business and education support it, but they can't sell it to lawmakers... DeMaria let that thought trail off, but his implication was clear - don't count on it. While not unsupported of the views of other panel members, his tone was entirely cautionary.
Paulo Demaria: The only way that anything that comes out of this task force has even the remotest chance of succeeding is if everybody gets together and says we've engaged in the give and take, there are some things we came out winning, there are some things we've had to compromise on, but we understand that those compromises were made in the interest of the whole and we go forward as a collective.
Those may be sobering words to people like Bay Village Schools Superintendent Denny Woods, a supporter of the DeRolph plaintiffs. But, he says, with all the legal avenues to try to revamp school funding in Ohio virtually closed, Woods sees the commission's work as the best, and perhaps only, hope.
Denny Woods: It's the only game in town.
In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.