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Catholics mull role in Ohio school policy

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Columbus, Ohio

In the shadow of the state capitol building here, the offices of the Catholic Conference of Ohio are perched atop the World Gym. The location is an apt metaphor for the political muscle flexed by the conference, widely regarded as among the most effective lobbies in the state.

Under the patronage of Republican Gov. George Voinovich, described by a spokesperson as "aggressively Catholic," the church has enjoyed a remarkable run of legislative success. Ohio now leads the nation, for example, in taxpayer support for private elementary and secondary schools.

In the arena of educational policy, though, the church's political clout in Ohio raises the question of how Catholic leadership balances self-interest with a concern for the common good. In March, the state Supreme Court struck down the public school finance system on the basis of persistent and severe inequities between wealthy and poor districts. The court's ruling in DeRolph v. Ohio gave the political leadership of the state a year to devise a remedy, and all signs suggest a looming showdown between proponents of educational justice and conservative, antitax forces.

The Catholic Conference, meanwhile, has continued to press the needs of its own schools, but has remained silent on the public education issue. Its reticence is by no means unique; a recent NCR survey revealed that in 10 states with school finance litigation in the 1980s and 1990s, no Catholic Conference has taken a public position in favor of equity.

That silence rankles some critics, who say the church should speak out against injustice wherever it occurs. Others say that since the vast majority of Catholic children are in public schools, simple pastoral responsibility should include concern for public education.

In Ohio, that argument gets a symbolic boost from the fact that Nathan DeRolph, the public school student for whom the case is named, is Catholic. While he was receiving what the state Supreme Court determined to be an inadequate education at Sheridan High School in Perry County, he was also attending religious education classes at Holy Trinity Parish in Somerset.

Ohio a test case

In many ways, Ohio is a microcosm of the national scene. More than 30 states have faced school finance litigation since 1973, and most education experts acknowledge an enduring, nationwide gap between educational opportunities in the suburbs and in poor urban and rural areas. But because these disparities are so pronounced in Ohio (by one measure, the third worst difference in the nation), and because the Catholic lobby in the state is so strong, Ohio provides a test case of the role the church will choose to play. What happens in Ohio may well have implications for how the church positions itself elsewhere on public education, an issue that affects most of America's children.

The education crisis here was triggered by the Ohio Supreme Court's 4-3 decision in the case of DeRolph v. Ohio, handed down on March 24. The court held that "vast wealth-based disparities among Ohio's schools" violated the state constitution's promise of a "thorough and efficient system of common schools," as well as its equal protection clause.

Ohio, like most states, relies on a mixture of state and local funds to pay for public education. The result is that districts with high property wealth can provide exemplary educational opportunities, while districts low on property wealth often fail to deliver even basic programs. Although the state attempts to compensate for such disparities in its school funding formula, the court found those attempts insufficient.

Analysts on both sides of the question emphasize that the court did not mandate absolute equality among all districts; it did not endorse a "Robin Hood approach to school financing reform" in which dollars are taken away from wealthy districts for poor districts. Instead, the court called for a "leveling up" program, in which the state provides sufficient resources for all districts to offer the type of educational experiences characteristic of the best suburban schools.

In handing down its decision, the majority on the state Supreme Court painted a devastating picture of the conditions faced by many public school students in low-wealth districts in Ohio.

One of the major issues in the case concerned Ohio's burgeoning school facilities problem. A study in 1990 concluded that $10 billion was needed just to bring public school buildings up to state health and safety codes. The trial record showed that students face conditions such as friable asbestos, coal dust, raw sewage, collapsing floors, poor lighting, leaking roofs and windows, collapsing walls, and even the absence of indoor plumbing, on a daily basis.

The court also struck down the system of basic state aid to education. Despite its ostensible purpose of equalizing disparities in property wealth, the court found that the system is biased in favor of wealthy districts in several ways.

Finally, the court rejected the system of mandatory borrowing to meet cash shortfalls in school districts, which it said traps poor districts in a cycle of debt and violates the state constitution's requirement of a balanced budget.

State Sen. Michael Shoemaker, a Democrat, argues that these inequalities are no accident. "I have accused folks opposing this issue of being racially and culturally bigoted," he said. "As long as it's us down in southern Ohio with no shoes, and the inner-city black kids, no one cares. They go crazy when I say that, but until they can prove me wrong, I believe it."

Critics of the present system believe that a fundamental issue of justice is at stake. State Sen. Ben Espy, the leader of the Democratic minority, said, "It's the epitome of denying children a chance to grow. Education is the equalizer in this country -- it equalizes everybody no matter the race, color or creed. Morally, to deny children this opportunity is the biggest sin we could ever commit."

In its court papers, the state conceded the existence of wealth-based disparities, but argued that they were justified in the name of local control of education. The state also contended that decisions about how education should be funded are properly legislative, not judicial, issues.

For students of educational law, these arguments have a familiar ring. They're the same arguments state governments made in the Brown v. Board of Education litigation in defense of segregated schools. In this case, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the local control argument. The court noted that in low-wealth districts facing a declining tax base and trapped in a cycle of indebtedness, "local control is a cruel illusion."

Voinovich and legislative leaders argue that they've put more dollars into education in recent years, in amounts that should be sufficient to satisfy their critics. "We've made significant progress in dealing with the equity part of it," said Speaker of the House Jo Ann Davidson, a Republican, referring to an "equity fund" created by the legislature to increase resources in low-wealth districts. The coalition that brought the DeRolph suit, however, contends that the equity fund merely staved off new borrowing.

The governor also argues that disparities are a good thing, that they signal the willingness of some communities to go above and beyond for their children. "The reason the disparities exist is because local citizens have decided they want to do more for their kids," said Mike Dawson, spokesperson for Voinovich. "We think that's a good thing. If a community says, 'We want to have more courses, more computers, smaller class sizes,' a group of people ought to be able to do that for themselves," he said. Anyway, the leadership contends, people are not willing to fork over the taxes to do much more. "You can only tax people so much," Dawson said. "This isn't a utopian society where we can afford everything that we would like to have."

Political fallout

Dawson's comment suggests the political borders along which the public education debate will occur. The battle will be cast, most observers agree, as a choice where higher education spending means higher taxes. Given the strong antitax sentiments in Ohio, framing the issue in these terms makes it tough political going for proponents of a "leveling up" approach. Reform plans advanced by different groups have suggested price tags of $3.5 billion to $4 billion over several years to accomplish a "leveling up" program, figures immediately dismissed by Voinovich and the legislative leadership as too high.

Reluctance to spend more money leaves three options in dealing with the court verdict. The first is to deny that educational quality is a function of money, with the suggestion being that the state can meet the court's mandate of an adequate education without spending any more. That course has been enthusiastically embraced by Rep. Mike Fox, chair of the House Education Committee and point man for the Republican majority on education issues. Quoting a colleague, Fox said that "nothing short of a direct IV to the taxpayer's wallet" would satisfy the state's education community. "The fact is, just throwing money at a district doesn't make it any better," he said.

"It's not just about money," said Steve Anderson, superintendent of schools in suburban Dublin, Ohio. "But when you have buildings falling down in some districts and brand-new facilities in others, when you have some schools with textbooks from the '60s and others with the latest CD-Roms, it's hard not to believe that money has some relationship to quality."

The Supreme Court concurred, pointing to patterns of proficiency test score results that show that despite individual variations, the best scores tend to cluster in affluent suburban districts and the worst in poor urban and rural schools.

The second choice open to those opposed to new education spending is a ballot measure that would overturn the court's decision. This is the course advocated by David Zanotti of the Ohio Roundtable, a Cleveland-based conservative advocacy group with ties to the Christian right. Zanotti indicated that his group intends to pressure the legislature to put such a measure on the November ballot. "Everyone agrees that this ruling will result in huge tax increases," Zanotti said. "We don't think the people of Ohio will stand for that."

Fears that the Republican leadership in the state might back such a move were confirmed on June 30, when the School Funding Task Force -- including Voinovich and all the key Republican legislative leadership -- voted to place whatever funding package they eventually devise on a statewide ballot. William Phillis, head of the coalition that filed the DeRolph case, expects that this ballot measure will contain language saying that only the legislature determines what constitutes a thorough and efficient education, in effect overturning the DeRolph decision by eliminating any basis for judicial review in the area of public funding.

"We'll fight it," Phillis said. "These legislators just can't stand the idea of court oversight, because someone might actually force them to do the right thing," he said. The actual language of the ballot measure has to be in place by August 6 in order to qualify for a vote in November.

On the ballot

The third and most likely course of action is to put a tax increase on the ballot, providing cover for legislators squeamish about voting for it. "It should be the people of Ohio who decide on that level of taxation, not the legislature," said Rep. Priscilla Meade, a Republican member of the finance committee. "Any vote like that needs to go back to the people."

If tax increases are on the ballot, they're likely to run into a political buzz saw. Scott Pullins, executive director of the National Taxpayers Union of Ohio, makes no secret of his group's strategy. "We'd like to defeat a tax increase on the ballot, and have some leverage there," he said, explaining that the Taxpayers Union is prepared to spend around $1 million to defeat a tax increase.

Given such antitax furor, many public education advocates are concerned that the DeRolph victory may be squandered, either through outright rejection by voters or through legislative responses that provide a temporary fix. "There's a sense that this moment in history may be lost," said Lynda Sirk of the Dublin School District.

Despite the crisis in public education, the non-public school sector in Ohio has been doing comparatively well. All told, only New York state spends a greater aggregate amount on non-public schools. On a per-pupil basis, Ohio is far and away the nation's leader, allocating over $600 per pupil in state aid for the 235,000 students in non-public schools. That figure includes $131 million in support for textbooks, counselors and reimbursements for complying with state mandates as well as $5.5 million in the Cleveland voucher program and smaller amounts for participation in various programs also open to public schools.

Since Voinovich took office in 1991, non-public school funding has risen by 64.7 percent while public school funding has grown by 49.9 percent. Voinovich has boasted at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting of his strong support for the non-public school sector.

Although the Catholic Conference is careful to avoid presenting itself as a rival of the public school system, there is little doubt that the dynamics of the legislative process have sometimes cast it in that role. During the 1995-96 school year, for example, 20 public school districts were forced into borrowing $87.1 million just to stay in operation, while non-public schools were enjoying another significant bump in funding. The difference can't help but grate on some in the public education community. "Until the state starts addressing all the needs of the public schools, it should minimize support to the private schools," said Brian Williams, superintendent of the Akron public schools and a former Catholic school principal.

In the most direct example of rivalry between the two sectors, a residual of $4 million remained in the administrative cost reimbursement account at the end of the 1995-96 school year, and some legislators discussed freeing up that money for public school repairs. The Catholic Conference mobilized its schools, who called their state representatives and senators demanding that the money be released to the non-public sector. The legislature raised the per-pupil administrative cost limit so the non-public schools could claim the money.

That sort of political muscle has reinforced the Catholic Conference's reputation as well-organized, articulate and effective on the issues it chooses to pursue. "They're effective. They're knowledgeable," Dawson said. "The people that represent the Catholic lobby are people that the administration and the legislature respect. There's no question that they have topflight representation in this state."

Lurking behind such statements of respect for the Catholic Conference is also a measure of fear. "Every legislative district in the state has a sizable Catholic community," said Thomas Needles, a Voinovich aide specializing in non-public school issues. "Their constituency is important to virtually every legislator, and the members of the General Assembly are responsive to the issues that are important to the Catholic Conference," he said.

"We have a very well-organized grassroots network," chief lobbyist Tim Pond said. "Our parents and families are very good about responding to requests for help, such as letters and phone calls. We can generate thousands of letters. In fact, some legislators have said to us, 'Please, don't send me any more letters. I get it.' "

None of this political capital, however, has been expended on the issue of justice in public education. Indeed, House Speaker Davidson said the only contact she's had with Catholic lobbyists connected to the DeRolph case has been their argument that any increases in public school funding should be matched by commensurate increases in non-public school dollars.

Sitting this one out

Why is the church sitting this one out? Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, chair of the bishops conference in Ohio, declined to be interviewed for this story, but Timothy Luckhaupt, executive director of the Catholic Conference, provided several answers.

First, he suggested the time has never been right for the church to speak out. "In this whole issue that's upon us right now, prior to this court case, I don't envision any time when the church should have come out and said something about public education," he said.

Although reluctant to publicly challenge the Catholic church, those involved with the DeRolph litigation have a hard time with the notion that the moment has never been right to say something. "Anytime between December of 1991, when the case was filed, until this issue is ultimately resolved would be an appropriate time," said Phillis of the coalition that initiated the lawsuit. In fairness, Phillis stressed that other religious groups, and even some in the education community, have not provided vocal support either, nor has he solicited any help from the Catholic community.

Luckhaupt also argues that Catholic involvement in the issue might be inappropriate, given the religious sentiments of some of the school districts involved, particularly those in areas of Appalachia. "The Catholic church in some of those areas is feared, is almost thought of as something that's evil," he said.

Patrick Timmins disagrees. A Catholic with a long record of involvement in church affairs in Ohio, Timmins is an attorney in Columbus who filed an amicus curiae brief in the DeRolph case on behalf of a coalition of Appalachian schools. "There are Roman Catholic families living in those areas. Due to economic factors, the church has decided that it cannot operate schools there. It should come out in strong support of public education for that reason alone.

"Those people are looking for support for their public schools. They would gladly accept help from anyone reaching out to them."

Luckhaupt, on the other hand, argued that church involvement "would be really resented by a lot of the public education groups" that would say, " 'What are you guys doing in here? You've got your own schools.' "

That assessment was disputed by Michael Cherney of the Cleveland Teachers Union. "Only the most bitter, resentful types would have that reaction," he said. "The vast majority of public school educators would welcome their involvement on behalf of equity and justice."

Other observers suggested a more crassly political interpretation of the Catholic Conference's silence on public education issues. Speaking off the record, several legislators said the Catholic Conference was so closely allied with the Voinovich administration, it was unlikely to embarrass him by denouncing a system he has spent so much energy defending. On an even more basic level, the church might fear a legislative backlash to the effect that if the public schools need so much help, maybe some of it could come from the non-public budget. "The attitude may be, 'If somehow you're going to side with public education, then you don't need to have us tooting the horn for Catholic education,' " Espy said. "That's just reality."

While admitting the possibility of backlash, Superintendent of Public Instruction John Goff dismissed it as a serious threat. "I'm not telling you that such an idea wouldn't be brought up by someone, but I don't think that would prevail," he said. Espy questioned whether such political calculations should even be part of the church's thinking on the issue. "It may be a legitimate concern in this present environment, but I believe the Catholic church should not be thinking politically. I think the Catholic church has to think morally all the time, and this is a moral issue," Espy said.

And if the church were to speak out, said state Sen. Shoemaker, the consequences would be significant. "Are you kidding me?" he said. "You get the Catholic church stepping up, and everybody in the General Assembly would know a new day has dawned on this issue," he said.

Luckhaupt was less convinced of the influence of the Catholic lobby. "I just don't know why, if we were to speak out on that issue, it would change the hearts and minds of anyone," he said.

Will the church speak out now, given the urgency of the Supreme Court decision? Luckhaupt said it was possible. "I would think that there will be some opportunity for the church to speak out in some way, shape or form," he said. Still, it all depends on how the church's interests are affected. "The program the legislature comes up with could cut non-public school funding, which would mean that we would obviously have to take a position against that type of measure," he said.

Jeanie DeRolph, Nathan's mother and a former Catholic school teacher, summarized the argument in favor of Catholic attention to the needs of public education. "Unless you're going to live in a vacuum, you're effected by this issue. You have to be concerned about everybody's children. Catholic or not, private school or not, they're all our kids."

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 1997