The Ohio Supreme Court has given Republican Gov. Bob Taft and the Republican-dominated General Assembly an early Christmas present by ordering the involvement of a neutral party in the decade-long legal battle over Ohio's method of paying for public primary and secondary education.
Why should mediation be viewed as a gift? Because it provides Ohio's decision-makers with political cover as they try to come up with answers to the following two questions: How much money must the state spend on each Ohio child to ensure that all children in the state receive a thorough and efficient education, as required by the constitution? How should the state pay for public schools?
Two months ago, the supreme court ruled that Ohio had to spend more on its current school funding system to make it constitutional, but the plan that the court approved carried a price tag of $1.24 billion in additional annual spending. The governor and the majority in the legislature balked and asked the supreme court to reconsider.
Taxes: Senate President Richard Finan drew a line in the financial sand when he said, "The Ohio General Assembly, as far as the Ohio Senate is concerned, is not going to raise taxes." Finan suggested that it was up to the supreme court to figure out how the state should pay the additional $1.24 billion annual cost.
The court agreed to reconsider -- but the decision to appoint a mediator makes it clear that the justices aren't willing to let Taft and the General Assembly off the hook. The court could have acknowledged that it had miscalculated the cost to the state and was thus setting aside the funding plan. That would have sent the issue back to square one.
On the other hand, the justices could have simply ordered the governor and the legislature to come up with the additional money, thus putting them in a political quandary. Going into a statewide election in 2002, Taft, Finan and House Speaker Larry Householder are not inclined to raise taxes. On the other hand, to get $1.24 billion out of the current operating budget would require a 42 percent cut in discretionary spending.
Either way, Republicans would have had to deal with an irate electorate.
Fortunately, the high court gave them an out with the mediation order. The court has recommended nine people, including law professors, who do not live in Ohio as possible mediators.
But the mediator's role should not be confined to addressing the issue of per-student funding. A recommendation as to how Ohio should fund its public primary and secondary schools is necessary, given the lack of political nerve in Columbus.
Property taxes: Supreme court justices have said that the funding problems stem from an over reliance on local property taxes. Thus the question: Is there some other way to fund public education in Ohio? We hope the mediator comes up with the answer.