More than nine years ago, five Ohio school districts challenged the constitutionality of the state's public education system. Their lawsuit wound through the judicial system and landed, with much fanfare, in front of the Ohio Supreme Court. The state's highest court determined that Ohio's leaders had, instead of providing effective statewide public schools, handed the responsibility off to local governments.
The howls of protest from the statehouse began immediately. Legislators and then-Gov. George Voinovich decried the ruling as an infringement on their powers. According to Voinovich, Senate President Richard Finan, R-Cincinnati, and other Ohio politicians, education finance falls solely under their jurisdiction. Similar cries rang out again last month when the Supreme Court ruled that the General Assembly had failed to effect the changes mandated by the initial ruling.
Contrary to these indignant protests, the Ohio Constitution not only contains educational standards that must be met by the General Assembly but also empowers the Supreme Court to enforce those standards. Article 6 gives to the General Assembly the responsibility for educating Ohio's children: "The General Assembly shall make such provisions, by taxation, or otherwise, as ... will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state."
Article 4 of the Constitution grants the Ohio Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction over "cases arising under the constitution of the United States or of this state."
This latter article bestows on the court an important power, a power that balances the law-making authority of legislators and the rights of the people.
Throughout this country's history, legislators have frequently abused their authority, enacting laws that required African Americans to use separate facilities and services, denied women contraceptives, barred citizens from voting and prohibited free expression. Along with the U.S. Supreme Court, state supreme courts are often the only protection Americans have from such unjust laws.
Just as these laws failed to meet the test of constitutionality, so too did Ohio's public school system. Although the constitution clearly requires that the General Assembly, not local governments, provide for public education, roughly 53 percent of the state's 1997 primary and secondary education expenditures were derived from local sources, with the state kicking in only 41 percent and the federal government making up the difference.
Even the state's last-gasp effort to convince the court that it cared about schools — its much publicized $10 billion increase in school building expenditures over the next 12 years — requires local districts to kick in $13 billion.
Since voters have the power to cut off local revenue initiatives such as bond issues and levies, this reliance on local funds places some school districts in a tenuous financial position. Two recent school levy failures necessitated cuts in administrative and teaching staff in the Cincinnati public schools, cuts that followed the elimination of 77 teachers and 228 instructional assistants earlier in 1999. The Talawanda school district recently announced that it too was forced to compensate for failed bond issues and levies by cutting four teaching positions, eliminating the Latin program and transportation for its high school students, shrinking the library budget and increasing fees for sports participation.
In shifting its educational responsibilities to local governments, the state has failed to establish a thorough and efficient school system. On performance accountability reports issued for the 1998-99 school year, the Cincinnati school district met only six of the 27 standards set by the state, Columbus schools met five, Dayton met three and Cleveland met none. In contrast, wealthier suburban districts in these areas performed admirably: Bexley, an upscale suburb of Columbus, met 26 of the requirements, while Cincinnati's Indian Hill, Cleveland's Chagrin Falls and Dayton's Oakwood districts met all state standards.
Ohio's leaders have failed to educate the state's children and have forced local governments, some of which are better equipped than others, to take up the task. But the framers of the state constitution recognized the value of a good education for all Ohio children, not just for those whose parents can afford to pay tuition in the form of property taxes to quasi-public schools.
The supreme court should be praised for standing up to a General Assembly that's fallen woefully short of fulfilling its responsibilities to Ohio's children.