Mission: Inform Ohioans of effective steps to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State.

Ohio Supreme Court School Funding Decision
March 24, 1997

The DeRolph Decision and Educational Adequacy

Popular press coverage of the DeRolph decision treat is as only a school funding decision. Because of the process used to argue the case, however, it is much more. The DeRolph case addresses the educational adequacy of all public school districts in Ohio. It is important for school board members, candidates, and voters to understand the implications of this case and work together to ensure all public school students benefit from the Ohio Supreme Court's decision.

The general assembly shall make such provisions, by taxation, or otherwise, as, with the income arising from the school trust fund, will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State
Ohio Constitution, Section 2, Article VI

What do school board candidates and voters need to know about the Supreme Court Decision?

The Supreme Court of the State of Ohio affirmed the decision of the trial court in the school funding case, DeRolph v State of Ohio by finding the State failed to meet the requirement of Ohio's constitution to fund a "thorough and efficient system of common schools."

The Court majority decision in DeRolph addressed three areas in determining that Ohio's schools are not constitutionally funded:

  1. Ohio's constitutional mandate to fund a efficient and thorough system of common schools
  2. Defects in the state's school funding mechanisms
  3. Conditions in Ohio schools which are inconsistent with the efficient and thorough mandate
Through this approach, the Ohio Supreme Court articulated indicators of educational adequacy which school districts should meet to honor "the historical notion that the education of our youth is of utmost concern and that Ohio children should be educated adequately so that they are able to participate fully in society."

Upon a full consideration of the record and in analyzing the pertinent constitutional provision, we can reach but one conclusion: the current legislation fails to provide for a thorough and efficient system of common schools, in violation of Section 2, Article VI of the Ohio Constitution.  -- Justice Sweeney

What should we expect of school board members?

Board members are elected to effect local control of school districts. This control must be exercised in conformance with applicable laws, guaranteeing all students in the district access to a "thorough and efficient" system. Hence, board members should ensure their district conforms to the indicators of "thorough and efficient" outlined in DeRolph. This includes both the overall goals of public education as well as specific curricular elements.

... we have proceeded not with any glee but, rather, pursuant to our constitutional duty.  -- Justice Douglas

What goals of public education did the Court espouse?

The mission of the states public schools includes ensuring an educated citizenry with the skills necessary to be productive members of society. The Court began its decision with these words:

In 1802, when our forefathers convened to write our state Constitution, they carried within them a deep-seated belief that liberty and individual opportunity could be preserved only by educating Ohio's citizens. These ideals, which spurred the War of Independence, were so important that education was made part of our first Bill of Rights. Beginning in 1851, our Constitution has required the General Assembly to provide enough funding to secure a "thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State."

Over the last two centuries, the education of our citizenry has been deemed vital to our democratic society and to our progress as a state. Education is essential to preparing our youth to be productive members of our society, with the skills and knowledge necessary to compete in the modern world. In fact, the mission statement of defendant, Ohio State Board of Education, echoes these concerns:

"The mission of education is to prepare students of all ages to meet, to the best of their abilities, the academic, social, civic, and employment needs of the twenty-first century, by providing high-quality programs that emphasize the lifelong skills necessary to continue learning, communicate clearly, solve problems, use information and technology effectively, and enjoy productive employment." State Board of Education, Preparing Ohio Schools for the 21st Century, Sept. 1990, ii.
Later in its opinion, the Court reiterated the intent of the writers of Ohio's constitution:
...The delegates to the 1850-1851 Constitutional Convention ... were concerned that the education to be provided to our youth not be mediocre but be as perfect as could humanly be devised. These debates reveal the delegates' strong belief that it is the state's obligation, through the General Assembly, to provide for the full education of all children within the state.
The decision makes clear the responsibility of the state to comply with the constitution and ensure the benefits of a "thorough and efficient system of common schools" are available to all schoolchildren in the state.

The General Assembly must first determine the cost of a basic quality education in both primary and secondary schools in Ohio, and then ensure sufficient funds to provide each student with that education, realizing that local property taxes can no longer be the primary means of providing the finances for a thorough and efficient system of schools.  -- Justice Resnick

What specific curricular elements did the court reference?

The court did not provide a complete list of curricular elements that every district must provide in order to pass constitutional muster. However, the court did cite the following curricular elements as indicators of "what might be expected of a system designed to educate Ohio's youth and to prepare them for a bright and prosperous future:"

In addition, districts should provide the supplies necessary to support the curriculum, including "paper, chalk, art supplies, paper clips ... computers, computer labs, hands-on computer training, software, and related supplies to properly serve the students' needs." Ohio's schoolchildren should receive sufficient technological training to allow them to compete in the job market. The Court stated its expectations of a remedy as follows:

A thorough and efficient system of common schools includes facilities in good repair and the supplies, materials, and funds necessary to maintain these facilities in a safe manner, in compliance with all local, state, and federal mandates.
Although the court left the specifics of a curriculum to the other branches of state government, and to local districts, it made clear that Ohio's Constitutional mandate of "thorough and efficient" implied a level of educational adequacy appropriate for citizens in the twenty-first century.

How does this effect priorities for local school spending?

The monies made available to public education must be applied to ensure all students benefit from a "thorough and efficient" system. Once these priorities are met, the district is free to "allocate extra dollars" in accord with "local control." As the court noted:

Although some districts have the luxury of deciding where to allocate extra dollars, many others have the burden of deciding which educational programs to cut or what financial institution to contact to obtain yet another emergency loan. Our state Constitution makes the state responsible for educating our youth. Thus, the state should not shirk its obligation by espousing cliches about "local control."

Given the many requirements placed upon schools by state and federal laws, few districts will likely have the luxury of significant extra dollars.

Although a student's success depends upon numerous factors besides money, we must ensure that there is enough money that students have the chance to succeed because of the educational opportunity provided, not in spite of it. Such an opportunity requires, at the very least, that all of Ohio's children attend schools which are safe and conducive to learning.  -- Justice Sweeney

But what about school funding?

While the educational adequacy aspects of DeRolph are far-reaching, the funding aspects of the case continue to receive the most attention. In part, this is because school funding has become highly politicized. Unlike states such as Tennessee, Ohio has failed to directly tie additional funding to district accountability. Some taxpayers and politicians are concerned that no amount of additional spending will result in a "thorough and efficient" system.

For many school districts, anticipated funding changes will result in little if any additional revenues. The DeRolph case was argued on behalf of some of the state's poorest school districts, where buildings are in poor repair and even unsafe.

The details of school funding are complex, and the general assembly has attempted to correct problems identified in DeRolph. Other problems, such as phantom revenue, remain.

Phantom revenue is a good example of the complexities. When a district's tax base increases due to inflation (i.e. when houses appreciate), the additional revenue available to the district may be limited by law (H.B. 920). However, the amount of state aid availble to the district is reduced without regard to those limitations. Thus, state aid is reduced faster than local revenue can grow. That difference is called "phantom revenue."

Due to complexities such as these, the Court admonished the General Assembly start with a clean sheet of paper and design a constitutional system of school funding:

Although we have found the school financing system to be unconstitutional, we do not instruct the General Assembly as to the specifics of the legislation it should enact. However, we admonish the General Assembly that it must create an entirely new school financing system. In establishing such a system, the General Assembly shall recognize that there is but one system of public education in Ohio. It is a statewide system, expressly created by the state's highest governing document, the Constitution. Thus, the establishment, organization and maintenance of public education are the state's responsibility. Because of its importance, education should be placed high in the state's budgetary priorities.

Whether the state has succeeded at the Court's request is yet to be decided.

The solution to the problem before us cannot come exclusively from the legal or political system. The General Assembly cannot write a statute, and we cannot write an opinion, that requires parents to love their children, to provide proper nutrition for their children, to challenge and nurture their children, to read to their children, or to do any number of other things that are vitally important to the growth and educational development of their children. We can require the General Assembly to comply with the Constitution of this state by implementing a funding scheme that secures "a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state." Neither the plain language of the Ohio Constitution nor our collective consciences allow us to do otherwise. We have accepted our constitutional duty and dispatched it as best we could. We are confident the General Assembly will do likewise.  -- Justice Pfeifer

Are there other guidelines for ensuring a "thorough and efficient" system?

The Supreme Court upheld findings of Judge Linton Lewis, who presided over the original trial. In his decision, Judge Lewis ruled that Constitutionally acceptable system of school funding must provide:

  1. Sufficient oral and written communication skills to function socially and economically in Ohio and globally;
  2. Sufficient mathematic and scientific skills to function as a contributing citizen to the economy of Ohio and globally;
  3. Sufficient knowledge of economic, social and political systems, generally, and of the history, policies, and social structure of Ohio and the nation and enable the student to make informed decisions;
  4. Sufficient understanding of governmental processes and of basic civic institutions to enable the student to understand and contribute to the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation;
  5. Sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of principles of health and mental hygiene to enable the student to monitor and contribute to his or her own physical and mental well-being;
  6. Sufficient understanding of the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural heritage and the cultural heritages of others;
  7. Sufficient training, or preparation for advanced training, in academic or vocational skills, and sufficient guidance, to enable each child to choose and pursue life intelligently;
  8. Sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in Ohio, in surrounding states, across the nation, and throughout the world, in academics or in the job market;
  9. Sufficient support and guidance so that every student feels a sense of self-worth and ability to achieve, and so that every student is encouraged to live up to his or her full potential;
  10. Sufficient facilities, equipment, supplies and instruction to enable both female and male students to compete equally within their own schools as well as schools across the State of Ohio and worldwide in both academic and extracurricular activities;
  11. Sufficient monitoring by the General Assembly to assure that this State's common schools are being operated without there being mismanagement, waste or misuse of funds; and
  12. Sufficient facilities for each school district across the State that are adequate for instruction, safe, sanitary and conducive to providing a proper education as outlined by the above-related criteria.

Is our district bound by Judge Lewis' findings?

Ohio's Supreme Court ruled only on the constitutionality of Ohio's school funding. In doing so, it supported Judge Lewis' original decision. However, the court did not rule on every conclusion of law made by the trial court; it deferred once sufficient arguments were made to determine that school funding was unconstitutional.

However, the court did signal potential support for Judge Lewis as well as the educational adequacy decisions of other state courts:

Other states, in declaring their state funding systems unconstitutional, have also addressed the issue of what constitutes a "thorough and efficient" or a "general or uniform" system of public schools. We recognize that some of these decisions were decided on different grounds or involved different education provisions. Despite these differences, we still are persuaded by the basic principles underlying these decisions.
Other states which have addressed issues of educational adequacy and school funding include Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and New Jersey.

The "different grounds" underlying litigation include equal protection guarantees, education as a fundamental right, due process, and the state interest served by denying liberty to students subject to compulsory attendance laws.

In particular, the indicators of educational adequacy from Judge Lewis' decision echoes the decision in the Rose decision, in which the entire public school system of Kentucky was declared constitutionally inadequate. The guidelines for educational adequacy from Rose were later adopted verbatim by Massachusetts in its McDuffy case.

Of special relevance to school board members is the requirement that Kentucky schools meet minimum standards or face santions. Texas, Tennessee, and Massachusetts also have accountability measures. In Tennessee, accountability was directly tied to a sales tax increase designated for school funding. The Tennessee accountability system has become a model for the nation.

Ohio is relatively new to this litigation. Expect it to continue until all schoolchildren benefit from a thorough and efficient system of schools. The most appropriate response is to anticipate the direction of the courts and ensure that legislators understand the resources required for the district to comply with the law.

School board members are in the best position to ensure the district's schools serve the district's students, and to demand those resources which the state is constitutionally obligated to provide. Hence, board members should be vigilant in determining that all monies are appropriately spent in support of providing a "thorough and efficient system," and that state legislator know the extent which lack of resources frustrate attempts to "secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools."

Ohio Supreme Court, DeRolph v State of Ohio

Dietz, William F., "Manageable Adequacy Standards in Education Reform Litigation," Washington University Law Quarterly, Winter, 1996.

Phillis, William L. "DeRolph: Past, Present and Future" OSBA Capital Conference, November 9, 1998.

Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, Chronology of the Derolph Case

Wishnick, Susan and Adam Schwartz Litigating the Right to a Minimally Adequate Education in East St. Louis, Illinois

Inform Ohioans of effective steps to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State.