Twenty Years After Supreme Court Case, School Funding Still Unequal In Ohio

Apr 28, 2017

It was 20 years ago that the Ohio Supreme Court found the state’s system of funding public schools unconstitutional. The case was brought by a coalition of hundreds of school districts and named after Nathan DeRolph, a student at Sheridan High School in Thornville.

To paraphrase an old WC Fields joke, it’s so easy to decide the DeRolph school funding case, the Ohio Supreme Court did it 4 times. 

At issue was the wide disparity in funding among Ohio public schools.

Former Cleveland Plain Dealer education reporter Scott Stephens was part of a panel on WCPN’s Sound of Ideas show. He saw for himself why Ohio was ranked last in the country for the quality of its school buildings.

“I went to an all wood –all wood-  middle school that had no sprinkler system," Stephens says. "I went to a school in Mt. Gilead where classes were held in a basement converted coal bin. And this was pretty standard for Ohio at the time and, quite frankly, if prisons had been in those conditions, they’d be shut down.”

The Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding that brought the case was led by Bill Phillis.  His own children attended both poor and rich schools.

“When I compare the kind of quality that some of my children had in low wealth districts with the quality of education in the higher wealth districts  - there’s no comparison," Phillis says. "Money makes a difference.”

Districts argued that relying on property taxes for school funding unfairly favored districts with higher property values, and the Court agreed. In 2002, they ruled that Ohio’s system was unconstitutional - but never spelled out a solution.  

A Shell Game?

One successful legacy of the DeRolph case was the passage of State Issue 1, which raised some $11 billion over 20 years so low income districts could construct new buildings.

There were also some attempts to provide more operating resources for low wealth districts. Governor George Voinovich wanted to raise the state sales tax for that, but Democrats opposed the referendum and it was defeated at the ballot. 

Then there was the lottery. It provides extra money to schools, but former state legislator Lee Fisher points out that raising money in one place just allows legislators to cut revenues in another place.

“A lot of people thought it was a shell game, because what you were doing was earmarking that money for schools but then the legislature could find a reason to spend less," Fisher says.

Levy After Levy

One notable hurdle for local school funding came from House Bill 920. That 1976 law locks down revenue from school levies so that districts will not receive more income when property values rise.

Former state legislator Bryan Flannery laments that law forces districts to keep asking voters over and over to pass new levies.

“If you would have taken all those wasted levies and all those things that would have passed over the years, we would have found that had we just allowed the revenue to grow with inflation we’d be at the same point," Flannery says. "So all that wasted time and energy could have been focused on, ‘How do we educate our children?’”  

Channeling To Charters

Not long after DeRolph the General Assembly raised a new funding issue by allowing the formation of charter schools. The privately-run schools are publicly funded, sometimes taking local levy dollars in the process. 

Right now, former Congressman Dennis Kucinich is traveling the state, calling charters a corrupt system rewarding campaign donors.

“Where  public education funds go to the highest bidder," Kucinich says. "And of course the highest bidders are the sponsors of private schools.”

Kucinich says he may go back to the courts to challenge that use of public dollars.

“DeRolph didn’t say, ‘create a separate private school system to remedy the educational disparity in the state,'" Kucinich argues. "They said the money should be going to public schools.” 

Up For Overhaul

Now, the chairman of the House Education Committee wants to ban all school levies. Republican Andrew Brenner proposed a system funded by an increase in the sales tax and by a single statewide property tax. 

Brenner says large urban districts are being protected now, while small well-off districts like his own Olentangy Local are not getting their fair share.

“We don’t have an adequate funding system," Brenner says. "We have a funding system that is completely redistributing funds to areas where the funds are not needed or is being mismanaged.”

Under his plan, the government would distribute the money to follow each student so every district would receive the same amount per student.

“Cleveland Municipal School District, for instance, would see their revenues cut, but they would also see their property taxes cut by 63 percent under my proposal” Brenner says. “We would see an increase in the sales tax.”

In his upcoming two-year budget, Governor Kasich cut spending for more than half of Ohio’s districts but added a little more money for high-poverty districts. This week, the House put back some money for those well-off schools, notably in Brenner’s local Olentangy district. 

The Senate will tinker with the budget next, and Kasich will get the final say with his line item veto in June.