In a case that closely resembled DeRolph v. State of Ohio, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the state relied excessively on local property taxes to fund public schools.
Michigan's lawmakers struggled for years to resolve this constitutional issue, while the state's supreme court stood strong in its decision. After voters defeated a ballot measure to increase income taxes -- sound familiar? -- Michigan's legislature swallowed a bitter political pill, slashing property taxes and correspondingly raising the state income tax without the voters' blessing.
Because of the Michigan Supreme Court's insistence, legislators dramatically changed the infrastructure of their school funding program to fit the mandates of the constitution.
In contrast, Ohio Supreme Court justices recently caved to the will of the legislature. Early last month, the court approved the legislature's latest education finance proposal, which, by all objective measures, is little more than a rehash of plans found to be unconstitutional in March 1997 and May 2000.
Instead of definitively reducing the reliance on property taxes, as Michigan did, Ohio's latest plan merely throws more money to districts that cannot raise enough on their own. While this gap financing increases the state's role in certain instances, it does not meet the constitution's mandate that the state provide for public education. Local tax revenues continue to be a very large and necessary piece of Ohio's education finance pie.
The responsibility for the court's surprising decision, which effectively brings an end to the DeRolph case, lies with justices Andrew Douglas and Paul Pfeifer. Along with Alice Robie Resnick and Francis Sweeney, Douglas and Pfeifer comprised the majority that first found the state's system to be unconstitutional. In this latest round, however, Douglas and Pfeifer abandoned Resnick and Sweeney to vote for the state's plan.
In his separate concurring opinion, Douglas argues that, if he had voted against the legislature's plan this time, the state's recent increases in education spending would have been repealed. He laboriously ticks off the amounts each district would have supposedly lost.
Apparently, Douglas believes the Ohio Supreme Court does not possess the power to demand strict adherence to its mandates. Michigan's certainly does.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the majority's opinion, however, is it brazenly crosses the sacrosanct line between the legislative and judicial branches of government. Chief Justice Thomas Moyer's dissenting opinions in the prior DeRolph rulings convey his strong belief that education finance should be left solely to the legislature, that the court should not even have agreed to review the DeRolph case.
In the latest decision, however, Moyer, who authored the majority opinion, demands specific alterations that must be made to the state's plan in order for it to be constitutional. While a broad ruling on the constitutionality of the state's plan falls within the court's jurisdiction, the specific methods of meeting those mandates belong exclusively to the legislature.
Also interesting in the majority's opinion is that Moyer expresses his faith in the "good will" of the General Assembly to enact the court's changes and to retain the approved system in the future. This General Assembly has battled fiercely, using every resource at its disposal, to retain unabated authority over the state's education budget.
Following the court's second DeRolph decision, the General Assembly stalled further action until after the November 2000 election, hoping Resnick would be defeated. It is difficult to see why the majority has faith in the General Assembly's good will.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this ruling is that, instead of insisting on major structural changes that would meet the mandates of the constitution and ensure the appropriate level of funds for schools, the court has approved minor tweaks that could be undone as early as the next session.
Recent spending increases could be repealed by the legislature as early as next session. Senator Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, has already hinted that cuts in education spending may be an acceptable way to ameliorate current budgetary constraints. The court's decision has left Ohio's schoolchildren dependent on a General Assembly and administration that, despite all the rhetoric, place education at the end of their long list of concerns.