Issue 2 vote won't settle education debate

Thursday, April 30, 1998

Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS -- About the only thing proponents and opponents of state Issue 2 can agree on is that the debate about how to improve public schools will not end with Tuesday's vote.

During a forum Wednesday sponsored by the Columbus Metropolitan Club, proponents said the proposed 1-cent-on-a-dollar sales tax increase is the most politically realistic method to pay for court-ordered reforms in the way public schools are financed. Opponents attacked the ballot initiative from divergent fronts. Some think the tax increase does not provide enough money for schools. Others say the state already spends enough on education.

"It's not enough money to fix the system, but it isn't chicken feed, either," said Bill Howell, director of advocacy programs for the Ohio Education Association (OEA). "Fixing the system will never be fast enough because kids can't wait while we tinker with their lives."

If voters approve, Issue 2 would raise the state sales tax from 5 cents on the dollar to 6 cents. (In Hamilton County, that means the sales tax goes from 6 cents on the dollar to 7 cents.) The $1.1 billion raised annually would be split evenly between schools and property tax credits for homeowners.

The OEA is part of a coalition of business, social service and education leaders that touts Issue 2 as a "first step" in improving Ohio's public schools.

Mark Real, Ohio director of the Children's Defense Fund, warned that without money from the tax increase, the state would be forced to cut other areas of its budget and raise tuition at state universities. Slashing the budget would be the only other way to finance recently enacted changes in the way state aid is distributed to schools, he said.

"We don't want to pay for these education benefits by taking away health care from the same kids attending poor school districts," Mr. Real said.

Issue 2 opponents accused Mr. Real and other proponents of resorting to scare tactics to sell the ballot initiative to voters.

A representative of a group including the AFL-CIO and most of Ohio's education establishment said he opposes the proposal because it lacks sufficient money to help poor schools or to fix crumbling school buildings, ranked the worst among the 50 states by a federal study.

Opponents in that camp note that when the Ohio Supreme Court last year declared the state's current method of funding schools was unconstitutional, it ordered lawmakers to reduce the reliance on local property taxes.

Yet using half the sales tax proceeds for property tax credits won't erase the need of school districts to keep asking voters to approve tax levies, said John Brandt, executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association.

Even if Issue 2 passes, school officials will insist more money is needed, said Robert Lawson, director of fiscal policy for the Buckeye Institute for Public Solutions, a conservative anti-tax group.

Mr. Lawson's group says one way to improve schools is to create competition for public schools with charter schools and vouchers that use tax money to send children to private schools.

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