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Just Who Is Nate DeRolph?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 8:34 AM

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In 1991 Nate DeRolph sued the state of Ohio, arguing the state's school funding system was unfair to poor districts. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed with him and ruled the funding system was unconstitutional. Despite three subsequent rulings, the state still hasn't changed the fundamentals of the system. StateImpact Ohio's Ida Lieszkovszky profile the man behind the case - Nate DeRolph.

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DeRolph at work in his office Nate DeRolph, 2013

In Ohio Education , Nate DeRolph is a bit of a celebrity.

But he never set out to become the poster child for school funding equality.

In 1991, he was a freshman at Sheridan high school about half an hour east of Columbus.

One day, a group called the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy came to the school to interview students.

DeRolph: “I kind of thought I was going to get beat up - law and order stuff - not like that at all. They were intrigued really just to find out my experience and stuff.”

DeRolph played sports. That meant he spent a lot of time at other schools. Plus his mom was a teacher, 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 is unequal, unfair, and unconstitutional.

DeRolph: “I remember thinking when I was in high school ‘man this would be great if by the time I get to be a senior this will be fixed for my younger bro, there will be some changes for him and that didn’t happen and I have younger cousins maybe it’ll be fixed by the time they’re in school and in high school didn’t happen and now I have kids of my own.”

DeRolph testified in court and gave depositions about his own experiences. His job was to tell stories like this one:

DeRolph: “I sat in computer lab with big trash buckets to catch the water that was leaking from the ceiling in a computer lab full of electronic equipment. If that was a business it would have been shut down a long time ago. School made do with what we had. Remember thinking there’s something wrong with this pic, kids shouldn’t have to sit in an unsafe environment like that.”

DeRolph says everyone involved thought it would be over quickly. But the judges and lawyers kept handing case up to higher courts.

In the end, he found himself spending a lot of days at the Ohio Supreme Court.

DeRolph: “We kept thinking every step of the way ok now they’re going to do something, so finally when the supco ruled the state funding unconstitutional it needs to be fixed everyone was excited thought they’re going to have to do something now it’ll have to be addressed.”

That victory that was short lived. The Supreme Court sided with DeRolph and the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy. They ordered state lawmakers to fix the funding formula.
They didn’t.

So the DeRolph case went back to the state’s highest court.

In fact, TheSupreme Court took up DeRolph’s case a total of four times over the last 22 years.  It sided with DeRolph each time. But the decisions did not force the legislature to make a permanent fix, and in 2002 the justices said the system is still unconstitutional, but there is nothing they can do.

The Supreme Court would not make the legislature do anything.

The case did prompt some change, however.

Robert Stabile is a former superintendent, and an expert on Ohio school funding.

Stabile: “DeRolph was the kick in the pants that got their attention.”

The case prompted the legislature to set aside a pot of money dedicated to building new schools. The school construction money helped address some of the more blatant inadequacies between the richer suburban districts and the poorer urban and rural ones. .

Stabile: “That effort has changed the face - the physical face of public education in Ohio.”

DeRolph: “That’s probably the biggest byproduct so far was the new buildings and the facility side of it has been the biggest difference that we’ve seen.”

Over the years DeRolph has stayed involved with education… He was even on a school funding advisory council under Governor Ted Strickland.

Nats: Drawers, shuffling of papers. “This is my file. So that would have been 2010, yeah 2009 and 2010.”

But that council never got around to proposing 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 various Band-Aid fixes like the building fund and increases in per capita school funding.

But DeRolph says that’s not enough.

DeRolph: “It’s obviously broken when you see so many districts year after year going back to the ballot for different things. That’s the test of time. When that’s constantly happening over and over again there’s something wrong with that.”

Now Governor Kasich is expected to propose a new school funding formula. But like former Governors Voinovich and Taft and Strickland, DeRolph is not optimisitic much will change.

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Education, StateImpact Ohio

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