Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Search of More Money for Schools Ohio Court Ruling Only the Latest to Find School Funding to Be Inadequate, Unfair

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Search of More Money for Schools Ohio Court Ruling Only the Latest to Find School Funding to Be Inadequate, Unfair

Article excerpt

Stepping into John Kirk's social studies class in this rural Ohio town is a little like entering a time capsule.

Antiquated gas lamp fixtures poke from the ceiling. Plumbing pipes dating from the 1920s run along the rough brick walls. Outdated textbooks patched together with duct tape warn of "the great communist menace."

Such features might help Mr. Kirk teach history, but not in the way he'd like. "This is ludicrous," he says, looking at an old map of the Soviet Union in his basement classroom at Vinton County High. Vinton High is a sobering example of the inequities and shortfalls in public-school financing in many parts of America. In Ohio, where schools feast or fast on local property taxes and per-pupil spending ranges from $4,000 to $12,000, poor districts such as Vinton have been reduced to begging. "Whatever we can hustle, we do - to survive," says Kirk. Across the country, the education gap has widened as obsolete state funding systems fail to account for demographic changes and unevenly rising costs. The 1990s recession worsened the disparities between poor and wealthy communities by slowing growth in state aid compared with local revenues. In recent years, growing numbers of neglected districts such as Vinton have successfully joined lawsuits to demand more adequate and equitable funding. Since 1989, courts have found school-finance systems unconstitutional in 13 states. Litigation is under way in eight others. The resulting wave of financial reform promises new sustenance for Vinton and thousands of other needy school districts nationwide. Moving in the right direction "The general trend is more money for schools," says Allan Odden, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and member of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE). (See map, above right, for average per-pupil spending.) Studies show that in states where courts have overturned the system, funding has risen an average $600 per student, Professor Odden says. Most, though not all, of the state reforms are a direct outcome of court mandates. States "wouldn't be {acting} as aggressively without the court cases," says Odden. Ohio is a case in point. In 1991, a group of five school districts in rural Perry County filed a suit, DeRolph v. State of Ohio, charging that inadequate funding and extreme disparities were robbing Ohio pupils of their constitutionally guaranteed right to a high-quality education. For six years the state fought the suit, even as the coalition of plaintiffs grew to encompass more than 500 school districts, including Vinton. In a landmark decision last month, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the state's public-school financing system unconstitutional. Education "ranks miserably low" in the state's priorities, the majority stated in the 4 to 3 decision. "The time has come to fix the system." The court ordered Ohio lawmakers to carry out "a complete ... overhaul" of the system to ensure all 1.8 million public school children are adequately educated. The Ohio court's emphasis on what constitutes an "adequate" education reflects a nationwide trend in school funding reform, experts say. It contrasts with an earlier wave of reform that started in the 1970s in California and focused more on alleviating inequity among districts. "The first round of lawsuits in the 1970s tended to be equity lawsuits, {involving} the distribution of money across districts," says Linda Hertert, director of policy studies at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. Problems arose, however, when such reforms coincided with radical tax-relief initiatives such as California's Proposition 13. Although funds were distributed more evenly, their levels were too low, says John Meyers of the education consulting firm Augenblick & Meyers in Denver. To avoid such pitfalls, reform advocates in Ohio and several states recently or currently involved in litigation - including Alabama, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, and North Carolina - have pushed state lawmakers to define and guarantee an adequate education. …

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