In the heat of the moment, it often is difficult to see the forest for the trees.
So it was for the state’s top three Republicans on March 25, 1997, when they held a Statehouse news conference to blast the 4-3 school-funding decision the Ohio Supreme Court had rendered a day earlier.
Gov. George V. Voinovich, Senate President Richard H. Finan and House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson ripped the decision declaring Ohio’s system of funding schools unconstitutional, accusing the court of “judicial activism,” with Voinovich labeling the decision “a thinly veiled call for a massive multibillion-dollar tax increase.”
The three leaders actually entertained defying the court order giving them a year to fix a funding system that was too dependent on property taxes and which nurtured a hodgepodge of rich and poor schools, creating unequal educational opportunities for Ohio’s children.
Years later, Voinovich and Davidson lamented that news conference, saying they should have emphasized the case was based on a lawsuit filed before they took charge. Indeed, the suit was filed in 1991 on behalf of Nathan DeRolph, then a freshman at Sheridan High School in Perry County. His name now is etched in Ohio lore.
Once they got past their anger, Voinovich and the leaders made progress to fix the school-funding system, particularly by providing more money for poor districts like DeRolph’s. And even though the court determined in three subsequent rulings the system remained unconstitutional — before relinquishing jurisdiction in a final decision on Dec. 11, 2002 — Ohio’s schoolchildren are better off now than they were before anybody ever heard of Nathan DeRolph.
“I don’t think anybody would argue that,” said Howard Fleeter, a respected Columbus-based expert on education tax policy. “The argument is: Is our funding and our education system where it needs to be?”
It will never get to where it needs to be, in part because money can’t buy parental responsibility. But Voinovich and three successive governors — Bob Taft, Ted Strickland and now John Kasich — steadily have improved the system.
In the 15 years since the first DeRolph decision, state spending on kindergarten through 12th grade increased from $4.5 billion a year to $7.1 billion, and nearly 1,000 new or renovated school buildings have been opened.
Kasich proposed a plan Thursday that promises to continue the progress. It further closes the per-student funding gap between wealthy and poor districts, a key requirement of the Supreme Court’s decisions. It pours more money into classrooms through incentives aimed at improving teaching, rewarding schools that innovate and show better student results.
The plan also expands school choice, primarily by granting $4,250 per-student vouchers for impoverished kindergartners to attend private schools, while fully funding public schools for full-day kindergarten students.
Kasich summed up his plan in a presentation to school administrators: “If you are poor, you’re going to get more. If you are rich, you’re going to get less. If you have gifted students, you’re going to get more. If you have disabled students, you’re going to get more.”
The administrators initially greeted the plan positively, mostly because their expectations were so low after Kasich cut school funding in his recession-racked first budget. Thanks to Ohio’s economic recovery, Kasich now proposes to increase school funding by about $771 million over the next two years.
“The general reaction is that it’s a rational plan and a lot of the things districts were worried about didn’t materialize,” Fleeter said.
Little more than 15 years after the decision on Nathan DeRolph’s lawsuit caused George Voinovich to have a temper tantrum, the forest can be comprehended through the trees. For Ohio’s schoolchildren, it’s greener, but still far from lush.
Joe Hallett is senior editor at The Dispatch. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.