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Funding Methods For Ga Schools Upheld By Court

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While conceding that "serious disparities in educational opportunities" exist among school systems, the Georgia Supreme Court has upheld the state's method of financing public education.

The plaintiffs in the case--and a lower court--had contended that the finance system violated the state constitution's guarantee of an "adequate" education.

But the state high court said, in a unanimous opinion, that the Georgia constitution does not explicitly oblige the state to "equalize educational opportunities." Thus, the justices said, it is up to the legislature, not to the courts, to correct the admitted inequities.

"Plaintiffs have shown that serious disparities in educational opportunities exist in Georgia and that legislation currently in effect will not eliminate them," Justice George T. Smith wrote for the court. ''It is clear that a great deal more can be done and needs to be done to equalize educational opportunities in this state. For the present, however, the solution must come from our lawmakers."

The ruling, the justices added, "should not be construed as an endorsement of the status quo."

The challenge to the state's school-finance system was initiated by the school board in Whitfield County, a relatively poor district surrounding the city of Dalton. Representatives of three other property-poor systems eventually joined as plaintiffs.

Georgia's public schools are less dependent on local property taxes than are the schools in most states. There, the state will contribute approximately $800 million this school year, or two-thirds of all state and local expenditures on public schools, compared to a national average of slightly more than half.

State Contribution Insufficient

But, the plaintiffs contended, the state contribution, although relatively high, does not provide enough money to pay competitive salaries or to cover operating and maintenance costs--much less to offer a full range of special courses and high-school electives.

Such "extras" must be paid for with local funds. And the high value of industrial property and power plants in some districts enables them to raise far more money at lower tax rates than poor districts can. As a result, the plaintiffs argued, tax rates in property-poor systems would have to be three times as high as those in rich systems in order to yield the same amount of revenue.

A "power-equalization" formula, which would give school systems an equal yield for an equal tax effort, was passed by the General Assembly in 1975. But the legislature has never appropriated the $200 million to $300 million necessary to carry out the law.

Although the legislature has agreed to study the state's school-finance system, education officials do not expect any substantial changes for several years.

"The main problem is funding," said Eldon Basham, legal assistant to the state superintendent of schools. "It doesn't look like we're going to get any more funding. If anything, we're going to get less."

Mr. Basham added that the power-equalization scheme "is probably too expensive to be funded in its present form.

"I don't anticipate anything being done this session," he said, "especially with the money situation the way it is."

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