For 160 years, Ohio has had a public school system. Now, an appointed panel of lawmakers, former public officials and well-connected experts are examining how the Ohio constitution can resolve the debate over how to pay for it. The group is called the Constitutional Modernization Commission. It could dramatically change language dealing with public education.
The 1851 version of the Ohio Constitution set up the state’s public school system by directing state lawmakers to use taxes to secure a “thorough and efficient system of common schools." Those words “thorough and efficient” have gotten a lot of attention over time. Chad Readler, a Columbus attorney proposed to the committee of the Constitutional Modernization Commission dealing with public education that those words be eliminated, which he says would put lawmakers back in charge of public education, and not the courts.
“That language has been used as a vehicle to take those disputes to court and have set judges set our education policy rather than boards of education and legislators. And in my mind that’s a concern. I think that boards of education and legislatures are better equipped to address education policy issues" Readler said.
Public school advocates howled when they heard about Readler’s proposal – especially when they noted Readler is the chair of the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools. “To remove the standard from the Constitution would be devastating to public education" said Bill Phillis.
Phillis knows that language very well. He led the landmark lawsuit in which the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the way Ohio pays for public education unconstitutional – four times. Phillis says with that language, the courts have put needed pressure on lawmakers. Charlie Wilson is a professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University and a past president of the Ohio School Boards Association.
“If there’s not some kind of enforcement mechanism, then it’s very easy for the General Assembly to ignore the Constitution, and then you get to the question of why even bother having a Constitution" Wilson said.
Wilson says he fears if that language were removed, there would be no right to public education in Ohio, because the US Supreme Court has already held that education is not a federal fundamental right and is left to the states. Instead of eliminating “thorough and efficient”, some are calling for more words to be added to that article. Maureen Reedy is a teacher and the founder of Central Ohio Friends of Public Education.
“Let’s use this to put in stronger, more specific language to protect the fundamental right for all of Ohio’s children to have equal access to educational opportunities where every tax dollar is returned to support and instruct our children” said Reedy.
But two lawmakers on the commission say that may not be the answer either. Bill Coley is a Republican senator from Cincinnati, and a strong supporter of school choice.
“If we decide to make a change we want to make sure that it’s something that empowers parents so that they can pick what works best for their child," Said Coley.
Republican Rep. Matt Huffman of Lima is a supporter of school choice and a critic of the lawsuits on school funding. He says the discussion about changing the language is purely academic, since it avoids what he sees as a need to make major changes in public school funding.
“Ambiguity really benefits the people who are making the decisions and getting the money. Until we’re willing to admit that that’s the problem, it’s not really going to benefit solving the current problem., said Huffman.
No vote on the proposal to eliminate the “thorough and efficient” language is scheduled. And if the commission does eventually approve it, a supermajority of the legislature would have to pass it before it could go to voters.