Educational policy by popular initiative poorly serves Ohio

 

Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment to mandate increased state public-education funding failed to get the 402,000 signatures needed to get their proposal on the November ballot. Yet, the debate about adequacy in educational funding is sure to go on and the group pushing the effort, Campaign for Ohio's Future, may very well try again in 2008.

An important question that is overdue for serious scrutiny is the efficacy of making educational policy through voter initiative. Does whittling down a complex issue like school funding into a paragraph on which voters then cast a "yes" or "no" vote lead to good public policy?

The Founding Fathers didn't think so. They saw such "direct democracy" leading to anarchy, replacing a government of laws with the chaos of laws without government. In the Federalist 10, James Madison warned, "It may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction."

In place of direct democracy the Constitution created a republic which derives its powers from "the consent of the governed." We elect lawmakers to make laws and if they do something we don't approve of-or they don't do something we want-we elect someone else to take their place.

In Ohio, as in states like California, Oregon, Florida, and Michigan, public frustration with politicians and the political process has resulted in efforts to make law by popular initiative, bypassing the messy legislative process. This is certainly the case with the Campaign for Ohio's Future-a group of 12 educational groups, of which the Ohio Education Association is the largest. They argue that Ohio's Supreme Court ruled four times in 10 years that the state's school funding system is unconstitutional and that the General Assembly has not done enough to fix it.

Defenders of the system-mainly Republicans who have controlled the legislature since 1994-counter that they have made serious improvements. They note that a recent federal study showed that the school districts in Cleveland and Columbus are in the top 10 percent of district spending among the 100-largest school districts in the country (see here). And they remind voters $5 billion has been allocated for new school construction.

This argument does not fly with the Campaign for Ohio's Future. There's a good chance a complicated issue that has been fought over in the courts and in the General Assembly for more than a decade could be solved by a simple "yes" or "no" vote by the citizens.

Yet, Ohioans freely admit that they aren't very knowledgeable about school funding. In a recent KnowledgeWorks poll, more than 60 percent of those surveyed said they didn't know very much at all.

Conversely, public opinion polls indicate the public does believe Ohio's K-12 funding for education is broken. Ohioans believe that the state should spend more money on poorer school districts (see here). Yet, when asked if they believe this money will actually get to classrooms, fully two-thirds don't believe it will (see here) And, when asked if they would support an increase in state taxes to ensure more money is spent on public education and on poorer districts, public support diminishes (see here). Ohioans are as conflicted about this issue as their lawmakers. They want the state to spend more on education, but not their money!

Washington Post Columnist David Broder has studied voter initiative efforts across the country. "The initiative has been used by groups of the political left and right-and of no fixed ideology-to advance their agendas," he writes, "often when those agendas have been stymied in the political tug-of-war of the legislative process." This certainly seems true of the efforts of the Campaign for Ohio's Future. Broder also observes, "...many initiatives are promoted, not in the expectation they will pass but in hopes they will put pressure on the legislature to move in the direction of the group promoting that ballot measure."

In Ohio all eyes now look to Governor Strickland and what school-funding solution he proposes. Should he disappoint the proponents of the ballot initiative, we are sure to see another attempt at a ballot amendment in 2008 or 2009. If we do, that effort won't be about taking democracy to the people, but rather it will be an act of political desperation by a collection of well-heeled special interest groups.

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