By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The Ohio Supreme Court declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional for the third time in 11 years Wednesday because it favors rich districts over poor.

Justices voted 4-3 to again order lawmakers to find an efficient and thorough way to pay for the education of Ohio's 1.8 million children in public schools. However, the court gave lawmakers no deadline and ended its jurisdiction in the case, meaning any further action may have to come from a new lawsuit.

Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote for the majority that the court has been patient as the Legislature tried to meet the court's original order that the state enact a "complete systematic overhaul" of school funding.

Pfeifer said that while the Legislature has increased spending, benefiting many schoolchildren, lawmakers haven't completely changed the funding system, which relies heavily on property taxes.

"Today we reiterate that that is what is needed, not further nibbling at the edges," he wrote. "We are not unmindful of the difficulties facing the state, but those difficulties do not trump the Constitution."

During the past 10 years, the state has increased funding for primary and secondary schools by 81 percent, from $3.6 billion in 1992 to $6.5 billion in 2002.

In 1997 and 2000, the court ruled by the same 4-3 majority that the system was unconstitutional. In September 2001, the court, by a different 4-3 majority, said the system would be constitutional if more money was spent on it.

Gov. Bob Taft then asked the court to reconsider after estimates of the spending reached $1.2 billion annually at a time when the state was facing billion-dollar budget deficits.

The court agreed to reconsider the ruling but also ordered mediation between the state and the coalition of schools that filed the school funding lawsuit in 1991. Talks broke down after about two months.

Pfeifer wrote that the court realizes that the Legislature can't spend money it doesn't have.

"Nevertheless, we reiterate that the constitutional mandate must be met. The Constitution protects us whether the state is flush or destitute," he wrote.

Senate President Richard Finan, who has criticized previous rulings in the case, was not troubled by Wednesday's decision. He said that while the majority ruled that the system remained unconstitutional, no majority agreed on anything specific that the Legislature must do.

"We're back to where we started from," Finan, a Cincinnati Republican, said.

The Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which filed the lawsuit, disagreed. Coalition Director William Phillis said the court's message was clear: Fix the system now.

"We've been operating on an unconstitutional system in Ohio for more than five years," Phillis said. "There's an urgency about this matter."

Taft had no immediate comment.

Joining Pfeifer in the majority was fellow moderate Justice Andy Douglas, and Democrats Alice Robie Resnick and Francis Sweeney, the same foursome who voted the system unconstitutional in the first two rulings. Dissenting were Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, and fellow Republicans Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Deborah Cook.

This time, while Douglas agreed that the system was unconstitutional, his reasons differed from the majority's. He said he would rather have ruled that the system would be constitutional if more money were spent, but there were not four votes for that approach.

Moyer, in his dissenting opinion, said the ruling evades the court's "fundamental responsibility to resolve a dispute it agreed five years ago to resolve and leaves the citizens of Ohio with a decision that can at best be described as ambiguous.

"As a result, it is virtually inconceivable that today's judgment will, in fact, end litigation relative to the constitutionality of Ohio's current school-funding system. The issues will almost certainly again come before this, or another, Ohio court."

The case is named for former Perry County schoolboy Nathan DeRolph, in whose name the lawsuit was filed. Among other things, the original lawsuit said that DeRolph once sat on a floor to take a test because his school lacked chairs.

The lawsuit's main argument is that the funding system has become lopsided in favor of rich districts because of the reliance on property taxes.

As an example, last year, $1,190 in local property taxes were raised to pay for each student attending schools in rural Meigs Local School District. By contrast, residents in Solon in suburban Cleveland raised $7,585 per student from local taxes.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)