In the world of Ohio education , Nate DeRolph is a bit of a celebrity. But he never set out to become the poster child for school funding equality.
In 1991, he was a freshman at Sheridan High School in a scruffy rural area about half an hour east of Columbus. One day, a group called the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy came to the school to interview students.
“I kind of thought I was going to get beat up – law and order stuff – not like that at all. They were intrigued really just to find out my experience and stuff.”
DeRolph played sports. That meant he spent a lot of time at other schools. Plus his mom was a teacher; his grandfather was on the school board. He was the perfect kid to put a human face to a very numbers-driven argument: that school funding in Ohio was is unequal, unfair, and unconstitutional.
"I remember thinking when I was in high school, ‘Man, this would be great if by the time I get to be a senior this will be fixed for my younger bro.’ … That didn’t happen.”
Then he thought, ‘I have younger cousins; maybe it’ll be fixed by the time they’re in school and in high school.’ (It) didn’t happen. And now I have kids of my own.”
Long days in court
DeRolph testified in court and gave depositions about his experiences. His job back then was to tell stories like this one.
“I sat in computer lab with big trash buckets to catch the water that was leaking from the ceiling in a computer lab full of electronic equipment. If that was a business, it would have been shut down a long time ago. School made do with what we had. I remember thinking, ‘There’s something wrong with this picture; kids shouldn’t have to sit in an unsafe environment like that.’”
DeRolph says everyone involved thought the battle over what it would take to establish equitable and adequate funding for schools thought it would be over quickly. But the judges and lawyers kept handing the case up to higher courts.
In the end, he found himself spending a lot of days at the Ohio Supreme Court.
“We kept thinking every step of the way, ‘OK, now they’re going to do something.’ So finally, when the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled the state funding unconstitutional, (saying) ‘It needs to be fixed,’ everyone was excited. They thought, ‘They’re going to have to do something now; it’ll have to be addressed.’”
That victory that was short lived. The Supreme Court sided with DeRolph and the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy. They ordered state lawmakers to fix the funding formula.
But lawmakers didn’t.
So the DeRolph case went back to the state’s highest court.
In fact, the Supreme Court took up DeRolph’s case a total of four times over the last 22 years. It sided with DeRolph, in one way or another, each time. But the decisions did not force lawmakers to make a permanent fix. And in 2002, the justices said the system remains unconstitutional, but there is nothing more they can or would do about it
The case did prompt some change, however.
Robert Stabile is a former superintendent, and an expert on Ohio school funding. “DeRolph was the kick in the pants that got their attention.”
The case prompted the Legislature to set aside a pot of money dedicated to building new schools. The school construction money helped address some of the more blatant disparities between the richer suburban districts and the poorer urban and rural ones. And Stabile says, “That effort has changed the face – the physical face of public education in Ohio.”
DeRolph agrees. “Probably the biggest byproduct so far was the new buildings and the facility side of it.”
Over the years, he's stayed involved with education. He was even on a school-funding advisory council under former Gov.Ted Strickland. But that council never got around to proposing its own alternative funding formula, and disbanded once John Kasich became governor.
A fix of sorts
Many lawmakers say the problems DeRolph brought up have been addressed over the years through Band-Aid fixes such as the building fund and increases in per capita school funding.
But DeRolph says that’s not enough. “It’s obviously broken when you see so many districts year after year going back to the ballot for different things. That’s the test of time, (and) when that’s constantly happening over and over again, there’s something wrong with that.”
Now Gov. Kasich is expected to propose a new school-funding formula. But as with former Governors Voinovich and Taft and Strickland, DeRolph is not optimistic much will change.