The Ohio Supreme Court has reached its final decision on a longstanding state school funding case that has lasted for 12 years. The court reaffirmed its previous judgments in multiple rulings, stating that the current education financing system violates the state constitution and that the responsibility to resolve this issue lies with the legislature. However, in its 5-2 final ruling, the court also made it clear that the case has concluded and that neither the state high court nor any other court has jurisdiction over it. This declaration leaves the plaintiffs with no mechanism to ensure that the current unconstitutional system is rectified, at least in the eyes of the court.
William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which initiated the lawsuit in 1991 under the name DeRolph v. State of Ohio, expressed his interpretation of the ruling. He likened it to being declared guilty but still being set free. Phillis believes that the chances of the legislature fixing the current funding system are slim, especially considering that they failed to address the system’s fundamental issues during the years when the court had jurisdiction over the case.
The final ruling was in response to the plaintiffs’ attempt to have a lower-court judge, Perry County Common Pleas Court Judge Linton D. Lewis Jr., oversee a conference on how the legislature would adhere to the supreme court’s judgment. Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro requested that the supreme court reject this request. In its final ruling, the court clarified that the case was indeed concluded, and no further action regarding it should take place in any state court.
Governor Bob Taft acknowledges his and the legislature’s responsibility to ensure that the state’s education system is both comprehensive and efficient, as mandated by the Ohio Constitution. Ann Husted, his communications director, explains that the governor also has a constitutional duty to balance the budget. The budget for the fiscal year 2004 is currently being debated in the state Senate.
Senator Robert Garner, a Republican and chairman of the Senate education committee, argues that the legislature has already taken considerable steps in the past decade to address problems with the funding system. For instance, he states that per-pupil funding for Ohio public school students has more than doubled since the DeRolph lawsuit was filed. Additionally, between 1997 and 2021, the state has spent $3.6 billion on school facilities, compared to only $174 million between 1954 and 1997. Garner believes that the urgency of the situation is no longer present.
Phillis, representing the plaintiffs, counters Garner’s arguments by pointing out that the lawsuit served a purpose. According to Phillis, the state would not have increased its spending on school facilities to the extent that it did if his coalition had not filed the lawsuit. He also highlights that the case compelled the state to clarify that the legislature’s obligation to provide a "thorough and efficient" education to Ohio’s students meant offering a high-quality education rather than simply keeping schools open. However, Phillis asserts that the state failed to implement the structural changes mandated by the court’s decisions. He claims that lawmakers have neglected to link the funding level with the actual cost of delivering a high-quality education.