“Thorough and efficient.” Those three words served as the cornerstone of the Ohio Supreme Court ruling 17 years ago declaring the state’s formula for funding public schools unconstitutional.
A 4-3 majority ordered state lawmakers to meet the mandate established in the state’s governing document for a system of public education. A succession of governors and legislatures has yet to comply, no matter claims to the contrary.
Is it any surprise then that the idea surfaced last week at the Statehouse to erase those words? You might ask: What took critics of the court ruling so long to pursue the dark deed? The convenient vehicle is the Constitutional Modernization Commission, a 32-member panel looking at ways to update and otherwise propose changes to the state constitution.
Chad Readler, the chairman of the commission’s Committee on Education, Public Institutions & Miscellaneous and Local Government, included the erasure in a set of related changes that he drafted. Know that the Columbus attorney defended the constitutionality of charter schools before the high court. According to the Gongwer News Service, he framed his proposals as part of cleaning up “obsolete” or “less applicable” language in light of “today’s modern government, modern society and modern education system.”
Nothing wrong with such an effort in principle, “thorough and efficient” dating to the 1850s. Yet Readler seems to have something larger in mind: gutting the court holding on school funding. (There were four rulings in all.)
Consider the language that he would substitute — requiring lawmakers to “provide for the organization, administration and control of the public school system of the state supported by public funds.” He talked about wanting something less prescriptive. All of that translates into authority falling exclusively to the legislature, no pesky courts citing a higher constitutional standard to meet.
Ohioans unhappy with the way the state pays for public education would have the option of electing a new governor and legislators.
Obviously, those elections are key, voters choosing representatives to direct the state. Still, there is much value in constitutional language that endures, guides and aspires, across generations, reflecting the merit of checks and balances, the courts in position to test whether governors and legislators are measuring up.
Paula Brooks, a commission member and Franklin County commissioner, saw what was missing in the Readler substitute: “We don’t have another standard here.”
It can be frustrating and difficult weighing the meaning of “thorough and efficient.” Yet the debate is just the point, and it is no less helpful in our “modern” era, shaping shared objectives and priorities.
What is “thorough and efficient” about a school funding system that still relies so heavily on local property tax revenues? Many school districts have no choice but to return often to the ballot. Property values vary widely across the state, 1 mill of taxation generating as much as $14,000 in one district and as little as $900 in another.
What is “thorough and efficient” about poor, rural districts lacking the resources for a sufficient number of advanced placement classes, or other opportunities to learn typically provided elsewhere?
What is “thorough and efficient” about spending more in the classroom on the most advantaged students than on those with the greatest disadvantages? A recent apples-to-apples comparison put such spending in Revere at $12,014 per pupil. In Akron, it was $8,244.
What is “thorough and efficient” about districts busing charter students while requiring their own students to walk longer distances?
Or the Statehouse revamping the funding formula roughly a half-dozen times the past 17 years?
Or failing to fund fully its own formula? Or providing schools with a 2 percent increase in state spending the past six years?
Or backing away from a commitment to reimburse school districts for revenue lost because of changes to the tangible personal property tax and the kilowatt hour tax?
Or burdening teachers with mandates that take them away from actual instruction?
The state never fulfilled its fourth-grade reading guarantee. Now it has a third-grade reading guarantee, and for all the passionate words about the importance of the task, it appears to lack the necessary resources. The same goes for early education as a whole.
I know: What good is the standard of “thorough and efficient” if these are the results? Whatever progress the state has made in recent years has been due in no small part to those words, spurring discussion and action.
No system of education will be perfect, or even close. The goal is to get better at a competitive pace. Chances are, that will be a much tougher job without “thorough and efficient” or something like it.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at email@example.com.