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Twenty years later, what's legacy of Ohio school funding suit?

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COLUMBUS— Twenty years after the first decision in Ohio's landmark school-funding lawsuit, hundreds of new school buildings dot the landscape and the notion of what constitutes an adequate education is regularly debated in U.S. state capitals.

Experts say those are two of the most lasting impacts of DeRolph v. State, a lawsuit first decided on March 24, 1997, and revisited several times over 12 years before the high court eventually relinquished jurisdiction.

Six years after high school freshman Nathan DeRolph filed his suit, justices ruled 4-3 that Ohio's funding method failed to provide for the “thorough and efficient” system of public schools required by Ohio's constitution.

Here's a look at the legacy of DeRolph two decades later:

New school buildings

A 1990 survey found that half of Ohio's school buildings were at least 50 years old and 15 percent were 70 years old or older. More than half had unsatisfactory electrical systems and a much larger percentage lacked adequate roofs, heating and plumbing systems or modern windows. Almost a third had subpar fire alarm systems and two in 10 weren't handicapped accessible.

A focus on dilapidated buildings in the DeRolph lawsuit prompted the state government's first systematic program for school construction, a role previously left to local districts.

In the years since the first ruling, new school construction has proliferated across the state. Bill Phillis, of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding which brought the lawsuit, says 1,000 new schools have been built across the state as a result of the DeRolph decision. He said those replaced about 2,500 schools, since some now house students from three or four different former elementary schools.

Rick Savors, a spokesman for the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, says Ohio has spent $11 billion on school construction since 1997.

Advocating ‘adequate’

Michael Griffin, a school funding expert with the Education Commission of the States, says the DeRolph case marked a critical shift in national education policy debate, which had until then been focused on equity — or whether all students had equal access to a quality education.

With the Ohio case, justices introduced the idea that the state had a role not only to even-handedly fund schools but to provide an “adequate” education to all, he said.

“The standards movement had started a bit before that, but DeRolph was the first to connect the standards movement and the school funding movement,” he said. “It said, ‘We need to connect standards and funding together,’ and that hadn't been done before DeRolph.”

Cautionary tale

At the same time, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to define what an adequate education was or to say how much money would be required to provide one. Those decisions were left to state lawmakers and the governor, who faced no designated punishment for failing to comply.

Griffin said the court's silence on those two big issues remains a lasting legacy of DeRolph in school-funding suits around the country.

Lawsuits in Kansas and the state of Washington, for example, sought specific rulings by the courts on the amount of money required to adequately fund schools — and plaintiffs wanted remedies, and penalties, clearly stated, Griffin said.

“In Kansas, the court wouldn't let schools open unless the state fully met the court mandate,” he said. “In Washington, they said we'll either not allow schools to open or we might even hold you in contempt of court, which meant hold legislators in jail until they complied. Of course, they complied.”

But Phillis said Ohio justices were caught in a difficult spot. “They wanted to avoid a constitutional crisis between the Legislature, the governor and the court,” he said. “The Legislature had made clear they didn't have any money, even if they were ordered to spend it.”

Despite leaving big questions unanswered, Ohio justices were still criticized at the time for judicial overreach, Phillis said.



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