Ohio Ironic Setting For Ed Bill Signing
By Bill Cohen, Special to Stateline
President Bush chose Ohio Tuesday to sign a $26 billion federal school aid package so he could reward Republican U.S. Rep. John Boehner and spotlight a school in the factory town of Hamilton that has improved. But it was an ironic setting for the bill-signing ceremony because Ohio remains mired in a battle over state dollars for schools despite 11 years of lawsuits and court rulings.
In 1990, five school districts, backed by a coalition of other districts, sued the state. They charged that over-reliance on local property taxes for education short-changed students in property-poor areas, especially the Appalachian region in Southeast Ohio.
In 1997 and again in 2000, the Ohio Supreme Court sided with the schools and ordered the legislature to totally rewrite the way the state pays for education. Lawmakers poured billions of extra state dollars into schools but did not make big changes in the funding formula.
Then, last September, the justices issued a more moderate ruling that was seen as a compromise. It dropped the earlier demand for a total overhaul of the school funding system. Instead, it told legislators they needed to make two more changes to make the school funding system constitutional.
To confuse matters even more, the four justices who made up the new court majority quickly back-tracked on their ruling. Some said they didn't realize the price tag would be so big -- $1.2 billion a year -- and they voted to reconsider the decision.
Then, in November, in their most surprising move, the justices ordered both sides in the school funding dispute to attend negotiating sessions with a mediator. Wisconsin labor lawyer and mediator Howard Bellman has held two closed-door sessions with attorneys representing Governor Bob Taft, Republican and Democratic legislators, and the schools suing the state. Several more sessions are scheduled.
Asked how mediation could prompt a settlement after 11 years of legal action and name-calling, Bellman says it is possible. He cites other long-running disputes he has helped resolve, including Indian land claims and the siting of power plants.
"I'm chronically hopeful, but I'm also not a masochist," says Bellman. "If I start feeling like I'm hitting my head against a wall, I'm going to back away."
Republicans control all three branches of Ohio government. For years, they have vowed not to raise taxes to solve the school funding dilemma. During the five-year economic boom, tax revenues flowed in so fast, lawmakers were able to pour billions of new dollars into education without raising taxes.
That has changed, though, with the economic downturn. In the past year, the governor and legislators have cut spending for many state programs, and they insist there's nothing more to cut.
That means - if the mediation talks fail and the Ohio Supreme Court eventually orders lawmakers to do still more for schools, legislators may have to turn to a new but highly controversial source of dollars for education: video slot machines at racetracks. Church leaders have vowed to fight that option with court suits or a repeal issue on the statewide ballot.
The bottom line - there is no end in sight for Ohio's school funding mess. And similar dilemmas face some of the other 18 states where school funding systems have been declared unconstitutional by the courts.