Congress has renewed the No Child Left Behind program, but has made a significant change in it. Now the program will be controlled by the states, not the federal government.
The change is welcome because No Child Left Behind was largely a hoax which had little positive effect on public schools. Certainly a lot of children in Southeastern Ohio have been left behind.
However, this was more the fault of the Ohio Legislature than the U.S. Department of Education.
In 1997, Ohio's educational funding system was challenged in a case that went to the Supreme Court. By a 4-3 vote the court ruled Ohio's school funding system was unconstitutional. The Ohio Constitution says the state must provide "a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state."
Justice Francis Sweeney wrote in the majority opinion:
"By our decision we send a clear message to lawmakers. The time has come to fix the system. Let there be no misunderstanding. Ohio's public school financing scheme needs a complete systematic overhaul."
That seems like a clear directive, but now 19 years later nothing has happened. The high school graduating classes of 2016 will include students whose whole school experience has been in rundown buildings in underfunded districts. Some affluent districts have three times as much per student as some others.
Chief Justice Thomas Moyer didn't agree with the majority opinion and did nothing to enforce it. Kentucky had something similar a couple of years earlier, and Kentucky's chief justice told legislative leaders he would cite them for contempt if they did not comply with the order. They understood that could mean indefinite time in jail or fines every day until they complied, so they complied. It would have worked in Ohio if Moyer had acted.
The Columbus Dispatch recently asked leaders of the Ohio Legislature about increasing school funding, but they also said they did not know how it could be done. It is not that difficult. A ninth- grade civics class could figure it out in one class period.
At present, local districts provide more money for schools than the state. That has to be reversed. That is what the 1997 Supreme Court said and what the Ohio Constitution says. It is what is true in most states.
You start by by dealing with the charter school mess the Legislature has created. Charter schools now get about one-tenth of the money the Legislature allots to K-12 schools despite the fact that they have low performance ratings and low graduation rates.
I pointed out in a column last year that most of the pupils from Athens County schools who go to a charter school are in school with a lower performance rating than the school in their home district. The billion dollars going to charter schools should be re-allocated.
Beyond that it will take a modest tax increase to narrow the gap between rich and poor districts and bring Ohio school funding up to level of our neighboring states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia, Indiana and Kentucky schools. That seems like a reasonable goal. Ohio's per capita income is higher than that in four of these five states. I find it difficult to believe that we cannot afford to fund schools as well as they do.
By doing this, we can significantly reduce the number of children left behind in our state. It would be an important first step in what admittedly is a long journey.
Guido H. Stempel III is a distinguished professor emeritus of journalism at Ohio University. Professor Stempel has a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Wisconsin and a master's in journalism from Indiana University. He has been on the Ohio University faculty since 1965 and served as director and graduate chairman of the journalism school, director of the Bush Research Endowment, and director of the Scripps Survey Research Center. He is a columnist for The Athens Messenger and The Highland County Press.