In Search of More Money for Schools

Ohio court ruling only the latest to find school funding to be inadequate, unfair.

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 Outdated textbooks patched together with duct tape warn of "the great communist menace."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.

"Our goal is to cause the state to guarantee sufficient resources to allow all kids access to high-quality education," says William Phillis of the Columbus-based Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding.

Guaranteed resources should include adequate facilities and time for learning, accommodations for children who have special needs or are poor, and up-to-date textbooks and computer technology, according to the Ohio Coalition.

In Ohio today, such resources are sadly lacking. The state estimates it needs more than $10 billion to repair and construct public school buildings, half of which are at least 50 years old. Seventy-six percent of Ohio schools - more than any other state - have less-than-adequate building features such as heating, electrical power, or lighting, according to a US General Accounting Office report published last June. Nearly a third of the state's schools violate safety codes, the report found.

Coal-furnace heat, no cafeteria

"We have one [school] building that has literally been sliding down a hill for a number of years," says Nicholas Pittner, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the DeRolph case. Some needy schools lack bathrooms and use old coal-storage rooms for classrooms, he says. Others must ration basic necessities such as chalk and paper.

At financially strapped Vinton High, many of the 650 students must share textbooks and calculators. The school was built in 1913 and heated until recently by a coal furnace. There's no cafeteria and only one boy's bathroom. Two classrooms are converted trailers. The "Internet Room" is a computer in a storage closet.

The source of Vinton's privation is apparent as one winds through hilly backwoods toward McArthur on US Highway 50, passing old farmsteads with peeling paint and laundry hanging out to dry. From such remote farms, many students ride a bus an hour or more to school. More than half the pupils qualify for free lunches.

"It's not like this community has said 'we won't fund schools,' but with low property-tax values the mills are insufficient," says Vinton principal Gary Doberstyn. "The community has made the commitment, but it isn't enough."

A major strategy of reformers in Ohio, Illinois, and other states is to reduce the financial dependence of school districts on local property taxes. Nationwide, local and state funds make up the bulk of school revenue. (See chart above.)

Some states, such as Michigan, have dramatically increased their share of education funding by slashing local property taxes and raising state income and sales taxes. But some experts warn that such a shift could diminish local control while leaving schools vulnerable to ups and downs in the volatile state tax revenues.

"The best states are those with all three taxes available, because they have the most opportunity to provide adequately for education," says Mr. Meyers, citing recent reforms in Kansas.

But for John Kirk and his students at Vinton, the prospect of any change is cause for optimism. "This is really big. Now we have opportunity," says Kirk with a wide grin. "If we had lost this case, we would have sunk into oblivion."


* Since 1989, courts have found school-finance systems unconstitutional in the following states in the year noted.

Alabama 1993

Arizona 1994

Arkansas 1994

Kentucky 1989

Massachusetts 1993

Missouri 1993

Montana 1989

New Jersey 1990

Ohio 1997

Tennessee 1993

Texas 1989

Vermont 1997

Wyoming 1995

Studies show that in states where courts have overturned the school system, education funding has risen an average of $600 per student.

Sources: Education Commission of the States and Allan Odden, University of Wisconsin.

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