Politicians in Ohio, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, all too often use education and children as pawns for adult interests. Exhibit A is the recent lawsuit brought by Attorney General Marc Dann against three Dayton charter schools. The AG, citing "a continued failure to educate children," asked the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court to shut the schools because they were failing to deliver as public charitable trusts and that he was acting to protect the children.
Exhibit B is Republican Columbus mayoral candidate Bill Todd's lawsuit against the Columbus Public Schools and the Ohio Department of Education claiming they maintain "an unfair and inequitable system of education."
The attorney general's claims were dubious from the start. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, fully 80 percent of children attending the Dayton Public Schools sit in a school rated either academic emergency (F) or academic watch (D) in the state's school-grading system (see here). In Dayton, simply closing a few woefully performing charter schools mid-year and assuming that their several hundred pupils can easily migrate to better schools is at best ill-informed decision making and, at worst, calculating and self-serving.
It wasn't just Dann's interests being served, though. The attorney general was acting not at the behest of education-deprived families or children in the schools or at the urging of the Ohio Department of Education, which monitors pupil achievement, but at the suggestion--and with the counsel--of the state's major teacher union, the Ohio Education Association (OEA). The OEA represents the interests of 131,000 adults who make their living working for district schools that compete with charter schools for students and state tax dollars. According to records obtained by the Columbus Dispatch, the OEA agreed to settle a lawsuit against the state (a case the AG's office was likely to win) in return for Dann bringing suit against troubled charter schools. An OEA staff attorney even suggested Dann's oddball legal strategy. So much for his claim to look after the interests of the children.
In Todd's case, he is using the courts to drag education into the middle of a political campaign, although he claims his move is not partisan. "This is an economic issue about the future of our children in Columbus," he said in a press release. Using legal logic taken from the decade-long DeRolph school-funding litigation, Todd's lawsuit claims that inequitable intra-district spending in Columbus is unconstitutional.
He may be correct about the inherent unfairness of how resources are allocated across schools in Columbus, but seeking to resolve this disparity through the courts as part of his election strategy is a cynical, indeed theatrical, approach for a Republican. Since the DeRolph case was filed 12 years ago, a long line of GOP leaders filed innumerable amicus briefs fighting that lawsuit. Their main contention was, and remains, that school-funding issues are best resolved by the legislature, not the courts. In fact, there is strong evidence emerging that courts do indeed make a hash of school-funding decisions because it is well beyond the bounds of their professional competence (see Courting Failure: How School Finance Lawsuits Exploit Judges' Good Intentions and Harm Our Children here). In recognition of this, courts in recent years have ruled in Oklahoma, Indiana, Nebraska, Colorado, Oregon, and Kentucky that K-12 education funding is a political question for the legislature and not the courts (see here).
Candidate Todd's strategy likely has more to do with his low standing in the polls than his conviction that the courts are going to solve inequitable school funding in Columbus for the benefit of children. These political shenanigans would be entertaining if it weren't for the fact that the education of children is on the line. There is no doubt that far too many children in Ohio's big cities are being failed by their education. Without a doubt, there are failed and failing charter schools and district schools in these cities that need to be closed. And there is no doubt that district funding results in some of the neediest children being educated by the greenest and poorest-paid teachers. These problems are real but the approaches being taken by Messrs. Dann and Todd are about political gamesmanship and serving the interests of adults. Meanwhile, students are toiling in failing schools and the bipartisan leadership and collaboration needed to address these chronic problems appear as illusory as ever.