Thursday, December 12, 2002

(Cincinnati Enquirer) Ohio Supreme Court rules school funding system unconstitutional

Perusing a newspaper from my native region, I find this story. A dispute on school funding in Ohio has been kicking around for a while without resolution. The funding system for Ohio public schools, based on property taxes, has been more or less ruled unfair and unconstitutional. Still, there is no replacement in place.

As Ohio makes movement towards a new funding system with "all deliberate speed," it's clear the Supreme Court is losing patience. I'm not sure there is a clear, workable solution, though.

Unless a ton of money is thrown into the system, the top school districts will lose money to make things even and the result is that good schools will decline in quality. On the other hand, poor schools are not guaranteed to improve with increased funding. Really, though, you need to abolish the property tax system or make it equal across the state to accomplish the stated goals. The state supreme court is wisely passing the buck to the governor and the legislature for as long as it can; it is, after all, not really the role of the judiciary to create a new system unless the other branches of government are completely negligent. Also, property taxes are used to fund other than just schools and it would be hard to separate these various streams.

If I were forced to come up with a solution, I would favor a phased-in solution. It won't make people happy, but if there is it not left completely open-ended, the plan won't allow any delay. I'd shift towards state collection of a property tax taking in at least the same amount as under the current revenue regime. The richest school districts will have their current amounts in per pupil spending locked in and won't have any immediate decline, but they also would not get any increases, including no increases due to inflation. This would continue until the poorest school districts are almost caught up. Obviously, the gap doesn't have to be totally closed, because staffing a poor, rural school will cost less due to a lower cost of living that needs to be covered by staff and faculty salaries. I'd also toss the rich school districts a bone by allowing them to pursue external funding for extracurricular activities. I would exclude current building projects from the calculations and would have a separate body to approve infrastructure improvements, which would not count towards per pupil spending (at least not fully).

My solution will not please anyone, but it would be a gradual solution with a clear end in sight. It doesn't drastically change the status quo right away, but trying to do so overnight won't help in this particular problem. It may get a few more people to sign on. Some rich people may acquire a faux-social conscience because the time delay allows other people's kids to pay the price.

If anyone has a better idea which has a chance of moving towards some consensus, I'd like to hear. Sometimes radical shifts are necessary (Brown v. Board of Education), but any time you can avoid a traumatic experience, the less likely you are to foster resentment.
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