The Next 400: School funding system ruled unconstitutional 4 times, failing students in poor rural, urban areas

It’s an issue that lawmakers have been wrangling with for years -- funding education.
Updated: Mar. 12, 2021 at 5:38 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - It’s an issue that lawmakers have been wrangling with for years -- funding education.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill said education funding in Ohio was ruled unconstitutional four times.

“We haven’t complied with that decision in 20 years,” said O’Neill.

The DeRolph decision spelled out that schools depend too heavily on property taxes to fund schools. It stated Ohio’s school financing system was unconstitutional but provided “no specific guidance on how to enact a constitutional school funding system.”

The more affluent the community, the better the education.

Justice O’Neill said millions of dollars have been diverted from public schools.

“Absolute thievery,” said Justice O’Neill. “Hundreds of millions of dollars of education funding were stolen from the children, and the legislature did nothing.”

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O’Neill said that poor rural and urban areas are left sharing scraps to educate their students because of that. The racial disparities tossed into the mix have made it even worse.

For students like Darius Fothergill, he knows all too well the inequities.

“I think it’s the system and the way it’s formatted, and we should be able to have access to all the same resources so everybody can have the same chances,” said Fothergill. “It shouldn’t boil down to where you live or what. It shouldn’t come down to what your parents earn.”

The history of educational inequity is linked back to housing discrimination, from redlining to white flight to present-day disinvestment.

There’s simply less money to work with, and the students pay the price.

According to the Ohio Department of Education website, Cleveland Municipal Schools spend $11K per student, while Orange Schools spend $20K per student.

Meryl Johnson, a product of Cleveland’s schools, spent 40 years teaching. She’s a member of the Ohio Board of Education, and she knows there are problems but sees the promise, too.

“If public schools were funded properly, then they could do the kinds of things they need to do, such as smaller class sizes, hiring social workers, phycologists to address the trauma and the mental health issues with our students. There’s so much that can be done with our students.”

A poorly educated child has fewer and fewer options, leading to a generational cycle of poverty that often breeds crime.

“We need to look at things through an equality lens. We need to be sure our children are being taught the truth about American history. We need to address the trauma that everybody is going to be experiencing.”

Johnson said there’s legislation being worked on that holds great promise.

“There’s going to be a huge campaign to advocate for fairer school funding for all of our children,” said Johnson. “The best thing about that bill is that it says that charter and vouchers will be funded directly from the state and the money will no longer come from the district and that would be wonderful.”

Justice O’Neill has a more provocative way to motivate lawmakers to fix the problem.

“Stop writing paychecks to legislators, you’ll see a solution pretty quick at that point, and there’s nothing illegal about that,” said Justice O’Neill.

In other words, dock the pay of politicians until they come up with the right formula for funding education.

“If we ignore them, they end up unemployed and in jail,” said Justice O’Neill. “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later. If you don’t put the money into the child’s education, you will carry that child for the next 50 years.”

There are several shining examples of young people in Cleveland who do not let their environments dictate their destinies.

William Christmas is a teacher within the Cleveland Municipal School District. He grew up in Cleveland.

“Growing up in the Wade Park area, it was very harsh where you would see dead bodies in the field across the street from my house,” said Christmas.

Now Christmas sees other children in Cleveland hampered by an education system funded by property taxes rather than a child’s potential.

“Teachers that don’t look like me or you don’t understand the struggles of children that come to school hungry, that come to school dirty, that come to school unprepared,” said Christmas.

Christmas said that’s why he turned to teaching.

“A child is not a test. A child is a child. You want to do those fun things that bring out their creativity to show that, okay, I can be your teacher. I’m your advocate. I’m your mentor,” said Christmas.

That’s a concept Iyana Hendrix, a senior at Campus International School, can wrap her head around.

“When you have that good teacher that really takes that initiative and really sees you as you are, it really makes an even bigger difference in our lives,” said Iyana. “It’s very important because if you don’t see me as I am and you don’t at least try to understand me and my needs then I feel like you’re not, that you don’t see me a whole person, a whole student.”

Darius Fothergill, who attends John Hay High School, is fighting to make his dreams come true.

“Especially now and with this whole COVID-19 pandemic it is very stressful,” said Darius.

The pandemic is adding to more disparities.

Studies show the learning loss could put students of color six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students.

COVID-19 Disparities in Education
COVID-19 Disparities in Education((Source: McKinsey & Company))

“It’s hard enough to sit in your home and stare at a screen for four to eight hours a day do homework, send it in, you’re not learning anything. You’re just staring at a video for hours and hours until it just stops,” said Darius.

The video may stop, but not Darius’s determination.

“I want to become a successful artist. I want to show out my art and inspire people to take, take a stand for themselves and know really hone in on who they are and spark individuality,” said Darius.

Both Darius and Iyana have turned to spoken word to express themselves.

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