Schools, be wary of judicial interest

Ohioans worried about their children’s and grandchildren’s futures may be scratching their heads over a proposed change to the state Constitution.

A state Constitutional Modernization Commission is pondering recommendations to update Ohio’s foundational document of government. The very fact alterations to a constitution that has served Ohioans well, for the most part, for more than a century and a half are being considered ought to prompt Buckeye State residents to pay close attention.

One change being discussed involves public schools. The Ohio Constitution stipulates the state must provide a “thorough and efficient” education system.

Those three words have been keys to court decisions, including a 1997 ruling by the state Supreme Court, ordering government to improve public schools. Taking the language out of the state Constitution clearly would be a reaction by members of the legislative and executive branches of government to what some of them view as judicial interference with matters over which judges and justices should have no say.

On a variety of issues, such “judicial legislation” has been criticized for years.

But the logical question to be asked about a proposal to eliminate any authority over schools by the courts is: Why bother?

Despite rulings such as the 1997 one by the state Supreme Court, the famous “DeRolph I” decision, not much has changed for hundreds of thousands of Ohio students. Their schools remain, well, lousy.

Consider just one measure of school effectiveness, high school graduation rates. According to the state Department of Education, rates for students in big-city school districts are: Cincinnati, 66 percent; Cleveland, 59.3 percent; Columbus, 79.2 percent; Dayton, 69.9 percent; Toledo, 64.6 percent.

Now, look at graduation rates for a few eastern Ohio school districts: Bridgeport, 93.3; Martins Ferry, 82.5; Steubenville, 94.4; Switzerland of Ohio, 92.5; Union Local, 89.1.

It doesn’t require a law degree to interpret those numbers.

Do local schools need to improve? Absolutely. But in most, teachers and administrators are trying to do just that. Clearly, if reform efforts are being made in the big cities, they are not succeeding.

Ohioans probably should be thinking about how much power the courts should have over public education. But as they do, they also should consider the dismal state of public education in Ohio.