W.Virginia Court Seeks To Define School Quality
Charleston, W.Va--When Janet Pauley, a mother of five from Sod, W. Va., went to see lawyers with the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund in 1972, she had a clear goal in mind.
Frustrated by school officials in Lincoln County who told her they were out of money, she said she wanted something done about the broken windows and the sewage system that leaked onto the playground at McCorkle Elementary, where her youngest son was in school.
Some 110 students in eight grades were crammed into the four-room school with out-of-date textbooks and almost no instructional supplies or equipment.
"Who in their right mind could call that an education?" Mrs. Pauley asked.
Almost 10 years later, the trial of the class-action suit spawned by Mrs. Pauley's question is coming to a close in Kanawha Circuit Court.
As in similar cases that have come to trial in at least 10 other states, the plaintiffs in the so-called Lincoln County case charged that the state's method of financing public schools relies too heavily on property taxes, thus discriminating against students in property-poor counties such as Lincoln.
The plaintiffs have also contended that differences in property values are exacerbated by wildly varying techniques for assessing minerals, industrial equipment, and commercial and personal property.
Such disparities, they said, have prevented many school systems from providing the "thorough and efficient education" guaranteed by the state constitution.
Aside from the finance question, however, the case has generated a great deal of interest among educators because, for the first time, a trial court has been asked to determine the elements that put "quality'' into the process of education.
In an order reversing an earlier trial judge's dismissal of the case and remanding it to circuit court, the West Virginia Supreme Court told the new judge to describe "what a thorough and efficient education is and does."
The state high court defined that education as one that "develops, as best the state of education expertise allows, the minds, bodies, and social morality of its charges to prepare them for useful and happy occupations, recreation, and citizenship, and does so economically."
Skills taught should include literacy, ability to compute, knowledge of government, work training, advanced academic education, recreation, creative arts, and social ethics, the supreme court said.
Equal Educational Programs
Implicit in its definition, the court said, are good physical facilities with adequate instructional materials and personnel that offer substantially equal educational programs irrespective of cost.
During the course of the trial that began in August before Special Judge Arthur Recht of Wheeling, plaintiffs took advantage of the court's direction to present a train of witnesses--including teachers, administrators, and college professors--to fill in the details of the court's definition.
Testimony touched on virtually every part of the school curriculum, from basic reading and mathematics to art, music, and advanced science courses, as well as social services and special education.
The plaintiffs' witnesses recommended, among other things, that class size not exceed a 20-to-1 pupil-teacher ratio; that computer instruction be introduced to all students beginning in the fifth grade; and that all science equipment be replaced every five years.
Legislators have estimated that making the improvements suggested by plaintiffs' witnesses could cost the state from $300 million to $400 million.
Lawyers for the state questioned the practicality of the proposed standards, citing testimony by John Vaughn of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, who depicted the recommendations as idealistic and excessively costly.
The state's lawyers pointed to the West Virginia legislature's recent attempts to redefine educational standards and to revamp the finance formula so as to provide more money for poorer school districts.
And they asked that Judge Recht give state education officials an opportunity to draw up revised standards, rather than handing down specific findings as to how the school curriculum should be changed.
Beyond standards, however, testimony also served to focus on serious deficiencies in some of the state's schools.
In Lincoln County, for example, Superintendent Charles McCann testified that many kindergarten students attend classes in large, unfurnished rooms where the pupil-teacher ratio exceeds 30-to-1.
Elementary schools provide few basic textbooks and almost no art, music, or science supplies, he said. Schools at all levels are severely understaffed. Upper-level high-school math and science classes are virtually nonexistent, he said. And less than 20 percent of each graduating class attends college.
Conditions in Lincoln County were compared with those in more affluent school systems, such as Ohio County, where nearly 50 percent of graduating students attend college and many special creative-arts and science electives are available beginning in elementary school.
The key to the disparity, the plaintiffs argued, was money. They said rural counties with meager resources and no substantial industry have historically been neglected by the state. Experts for the state, however, insisted that differences in educational quality have less to do with the amount of money spent on schools than with the talents of individual teachers and administrators.
They said the state's method of distributing aid was among the most equitable in the nation.
But the plaintiffs insisted that, despite efforts to improve the formula, wealthy counties will remain ahead of poor counties because of their ability to pass "excess levies" approved by voters to supplement state aid and local property taxes.
Witnesses for the state admitted that "excess levies" cause some disparities, but they insisted that those taxes were needed to give communities some measure of local control over their schools.
Concluding arguments in the case are expected in mid-December, and Judge Recht has indicated he intends to make his decision by late January.