When it comes to the controversy over school funding in Ohio, one name comes up time and time again: Nate DeRolph.
But he never set out to become the poster child for school funding equality.
In 1991, he was a freshman at Sheridan High School half an hour east of Columbus when 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,” says DeRolph. “They were intrigued really just to find out my experience.”
DeRolph played sports, which meant he spent a lot of time at other schools. Plus his mom was a teacher and 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 unequal, unfair, and unconstitutional.
That’s how the landmark DeRolph v. The State of Ohio case started.
“There’s Something Wrong With This Picture”
Back then, DeRolph says he remembers thinking it’d be great if within four years, by the time he’s a senior, things would change. He testified in court and gave depositions about his own experiences.
His job was to tell stories like this one:
“I sat in computer lab that had big trash buckets that were there to catch the water that was leaking from the ceiling in a computer lab full of electronic equipment. If that was a business that business would have been shut down a long time ago. But our school district made do with what we had, and I just remember thinking there’s something wrong with this picture, kids shouldn’t have to sit in a room like that or be in an unsafe environment like that.”
DeRolph says everyone involved thought the case would be over quickly.But the case kept getting handed up to higher courts. It wasn’t long before DeRolph was spending his days at the Ohio Supreme Court.
Eventually, the Supreme Court ruling came down on DeRolph’s side. The court said the funding system is unconstitutional, and the legislature should fix it.
That victory that was short lived, since the court could not make the legislature do anything.
Over the last 22 years, the Ohio Supreme Court has taken up DeRolph’s case four times, siding with DeRolph each time.
In 2002 the justices said the system is still unconstitutional, but they won’t take the issue up anymore.
The case did prompt some changes, however.
“DeRolph was the kick in the pants that got their attention,” says Robert Stabile, a former superintendent and an expert on Ohio school funding.
The case prompted the legislature to set aside a pot of money dedicated to building new schools. That helped address some of the more blatant inadequacies between the richer suburban districts and the poorer urban and rural ones.
Stabile says the building fund “has changed the face – the physical face of public education in Ohio.”
The legislature also tweaked the funding formula to send more money to poorer districts.
The System is “Still Broken”
DeRolph says he’s glad his case has brought about some changes, and he’s stayed involved with education. He was even on a school funding advisory council under Governor Ted Strickland.
But that council never got around to enacting their alternative funding formula, and disbanded once John Kasich became Governor.
Many lawmakers say the problems DeRolph brought up have been addressed over the years through those various Band-Aid fixes.
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,” he says. “That’s the test of time. When that’s constantly happening over and over again there’s something wrong with that.”
Governor Kasich is expected to propose a new school funding formula this week.
But like former Governors Voinovich and Taft and Strickland, DeRolph is not optimisitic much will change.