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Published: 8/15/2003

School coalition wants to reverse decision on judge

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - A coalition of Ohio public schools asked the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday to review whether the Ohio Supreme Court violated the federal Constitution by barring a common pleas court judge from overseeing the state's efforts to craft a school-funding system.

“The rights of schoolchildren are being violated, and it is the duty of the courts to enforce those rights,” said Bill Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding.

“This deprivation of a remedy is a violation of the right to due process and equal protection of law.”

If the U.S. Supreme Court puts the petition on its docket, the state would have a month to respond, said Mark Gribben, a spokesman for state Attorney General Jim Petro. A minimum of four justices on the nine-member panel is required for the high court to consider the petition.

“School funding historically has been a state policy question, and I believe the United States Supreme Court will agree that the people of Ohio are best suited to decide how they want to fund education in their state,” Mr. Petro said in a statement.

In December, 2002, the Ohio Supreme Court repeated its previous decisions that the state's school-funding system is unconstitutional. The court said Ohio's heavy reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools creates inequities between rich and poor districts, making educational opportunity a function of where a child is born.

The state objected and the Ohio Supreme Court decided 5-2 on May 16 to bar Judge Lewis from taking jurisdiction of the case. But the court majority also said the GOP-controlled legislature must craft a new school-funding system that complies with the state Constitution.

Nick Pittner, an attorney representing the coalition of school district - a group which has 518 school districts as members, including Toledo Public Schools - said the Ohio Supreme Court's May 16 decision violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution when it “closed the courthouse doors” to school districts.

David Goldberger, a law professor at Ohio State University who has consulted with the coalition of school districts, said, “The U.S. Supreme Court is not being asked to address the question of what is the correct amount to be spent on public education. The broader ramification is, `What is fair conduct of litigation in the courts once a right, a violation, and a remedy for that violation are established?'”

But even if the U.S. Supreme Court decides to hear the coalition's appeal and Judge Lewis is allowed to hold hearings on the state's efforts to craft a new funding system, the matter ultimately will end up at the Ohio Supreme Court again, said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission for the States, a nonpartisan group based in Denver.

“People know the current makeup. It would lean toward saying the current system is constitutional,” Mr. Griffith said.

Orest Holubec, Gov. Bob Taft's press secretary, would not comment on the coalition's petition. He noted that Mr. Taft gave his 33-member commission its marching orders last week.

“Part of that charge is to find a new way of funding our schools that meets the test of constitutionality. But another important element is to find a way to fund our schools that supports student achievement,” Mr. Holubec said.

The commission is expected to forward its recommendations to Mr. Taft early next year.

Jim Betts, an attorney representing the Alliance for Adequate Education - a coalition of 60 higher-wealth school districts including Ottawa Hills, Sylvania, and Perrysburg - said the group won't file a brief backing the coalition's arguments.

“We felt all along that the final decision would be in the hands of the legislature,” Mr. Betts said.



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