DeRolph: Much Ado About Nothing

Jeffrey D. Schultz

January 28, 1998

When the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in DeRolph vs. State that the current approach to funding public education through property taxes in Ohio was unconstitutional, it set of a frantic race to develop a funding system. Many have mistakenly taken the Court’s ruling and the policy-makers’ proposals as educational reform, but they are not. The DeRolph case is not about educational reform. But then, what is at the heart of this case whose resolution must be achieved in the next three months?

The Court ruled that there were too many inequities in the current funding system. What they mean by this age-old coded complaint is that rich communities have lots of money for their schools while poorer districts struggle. Behind this conclusion is the presupposition that the more money one spends on school districts the better they are. However, national study after national study simply does not bear out this fuzzy logic. If the dollars per pupil were an accurate measure of performance than the students in the District of Columbia should be among the best educated as they receive more money per pupil than almost any school district in the nation. However, when measured by standardized tests we find that their performance is among the worst. Conversely, the state of New Hampshire spends among the least on education and performs among the best. So let’s be clear on something: you can’t measure the quality of a school by the size of its budget.

To the Court’s credit it did not say that funding had to be increased or decreased, it simply said that it had to be made more equitable. But let’s not kid ourselves. The result of DeRolph will be to sink Ohio schools to the least common denominator. No one in these tax-hiking averse days is going to suggest that we fund schools at the highest rate. Rather, any plan that is likely to be adopted will cut spending for most school districts. How am I so sure about this? Take the Governor’s plan to raise $1.1 billion by increasing the state sales tax from 5% to 6% as well as some business taxes and cigarette taxes by twelve cents a pack while rolling back property tax by 2.5% on owner-occupied homes. The problem with the plan is that it sets as the base spending per pupil at $4,269. In Cuyahoga County, 26 of the 31 school districts currently have funding levels that exceed this base. The result would be less money not more.

“Wait, a minute,” I hear my readers’ cry. “I thought you were arguing that spending levels do not equal quality. If so, why do you care if spending goes down?”

To these astute readers, I can only say that whether or not DeRolph raises or lowers funding for school districts there will be little change in the quality of our schools. Despite what many, including Vice President Al Gore, think good education is not about being hooked up to the web or having the latest high-tech laboratories. After all, dissecting a frog does not take a proton accelerator, or even a laboratory for that matter. Besides, the basics—those things that modern education has forgotten how to teach, like reading, writing and arithmetic—do not cost a lot of money to teach.

My point is simple. DeRolph will have little, if any, impact on improving education in the state of Ohio. Pick a funding method… any funding, and education will not change. Real education reform has nothing to do with the debate on how much money we are going to spend on education and where we raise those funds. Rather, it has everything to do with determining how we are going to spend whatever money we do have. If policy-makers, educators and the public want to reform education in Ohio then count me in. If, however, all anyone wants to talk about is how much money and from where that money is coming from, wake me later.

Jeffrey D. Schultz is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.