The Future of School Funding, Part 2

Bill Rice- In early 2000 the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the General Assembly's first attempt to resolve school funding inequities. In a decision known as DeRolph 2, the court ruled that $300 million in new money - mostly allocated toward programs to improve school buildings statewide - still failed meet the Ohio constitution's provision for a "thorough and efficient" system of public education.

Jonathan Entin- At this point the court says, once again, to the governor and legislature: Go back to the drawing board and do it right, or at least do it better.

BR- Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Entin says that ruling touched off a political frackus that boiled during last fall's Supreme Court race. Republican Appellate Judge Terrence O'Donnell was challenging incumbent Democrat Alice Robie Resnick, who wrote the majority opinion in DeRolph 2.

JE- Various interests who were unhappy with the court for a variety of reasons said a-ha - this is one of those instances where maybe we can put some emphasis, but if we can change the composition of the court by defeating one or more of the justices who've been in the majority, then maybe we can change the direction of a lot of legal and public policy in the state.

BR- Including, according to Entin, how the court might respond to the state's latest school funding fix, which at that time was still undetermined. Some called the anti-Resnick ad part of a Republican attempt to oust the justice using questionable smear tactics. If so, it failed, Entin says. Resnick was re-elected by a wide margin, and the Governor has since signed a GOP-passed education funding proposal. The cornerstone of the plan is a $1.4 billion increase in education spending. Again, Jonathan.

JE- One of the arguments has been - if we significantly increase the amount of money the state provides in this biennium, will that be enough or do we have to do something more? Only the court will be able to answer to that question.

BR- But Ohio Governor Bob Taft, who signed the 2-year budget containing the funding proposal last week, has said he thinks the fix will satisfy the court.

Bob Taft- The state is stepping up to the plate and saying we will share - in the case of Cleveland Schools, more than share - in the cost of providing good school buildings for your children.

BR- But democrats in Columbus - including Representative John Barnes - aren't buying the package.

John Barnes- I'm not going to guess what the Supreme Court's going to do, but I'm just not satisfied with the level of funding that was passed by the House of Representatives, and I think my vote demonstrated my position.

BR- That's not to say there isn't plenty of speculation in the democratic camp. For instance, State Representative Brian Flannery believes the court will reject the school funding plan on the basis that it continues to rely too heavily on revenues from local property taxes - something the court previously cited as one of the flaws in the system. So what happens if the court does reject the plan? Ohio Chief Justice Thomas Moyer looks to how similar situations have been handled in some other states.

Thomas Moyer- And in most of them the court will tell the General Assembly to continue working if they say the new plan is unconstitutional.

BR- Steven Sugarman, a lawyer and veteran of several early school funding lawsuits - on the plaintiffs' side - says it's not unusual for a state court to adopt a sort of trial-and-error tack with a legislature that's resistant to making changes, as, he says, the New Jersey Supreme Court has done.

SS- They've tried to turn the system upside down where the most money goes not to the wealthiest but to the neediest. That's in the process of playing out and it's taken almost thirty years and seven or eight trips to the court.

BR- Or, Sugarman says, a court could theoretically take more coercive steps.

SS- The court can order the state controller or whoever's in charge of the money, enjoin the person from sending any money to the districts and in effect close the system down. That puts a lot of pressure on the legislature.

BR- Even more drastic is an idea floated by, among others, the outspoken head of the Cleveland Teachers' Union, Richard Decolibus.

Richard Decolibus- They can throw them all in jail, which isn't a bad idea.

BR- Chief Justice Moyer scoffs at that notion.

TM- There is no state where that has happened.

BR- And for now, no one knows how long the DeRolph case will continue. Lawyers for both sides will take their arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court for a hearing next Wednesday. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.

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