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High Court Asked To Reassess Stand on State Finance Reform

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Invoking the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last spring in a Texas case involving the education of illegal aliens, a group of New York school districts this month asked the Justices to review a state high-court decision upholding the state's school-finance law.

Since 1973, when the Supreme Court held in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that education is not a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, lawyers involved in school-finance reform have held out little hope of obtaining relief in the federal courts and have instead concentrated, with mixed success, on the state courts and legislatures.

But in a June decision, Plyler v. Doe, the Court found that while education is not a fundamental right, it is more important than other government services and deserves higher status. The state of Texas, the Court found, would have to prove that it had a "compelling interest," rather than the less stringent "rational basis," for denying schooling to the children of illegal aliens.

"I think Plyler was probably the deciding factor in making the decision to go forward [with the appeal] in the face of Rodriguez," said Daniel P. Levitt, the principal lawyer for 23 New York school districts. "Plyler gave us a ray of hope."

Although several state courts have found disparities in districts' per-pupil spending to violate state constitutional provisions, many other state judges have cited Rodriguez in upholding such formulas. Recent decisions in Georgia, Colorado, and Michigan relied on the precedent set in Rodriguez.

But a Supreme Court reversal of the New York high court's verdict would not necessarily result in reversals of similar verdicts in other states, Mr. Levitt said. "Except for the ones that are still open, somebody would have to file a new suit," he said.

Constitutional Violation

The New York case, Levittown v. Nyquist, was filed in 1974 by a group of suburban and rural school systems that claimed that the state's school-finance system, by allowing per-pupil expenditures to become largely a function of a district's property wealth, violates the New York and U.S. constitutions. State aid to school districts, which this year will make up about $4.2 billion of the $10 billion spent statewide on elementary and secondary education, is distributed according to formulas that exacerbate the disparities between rich and poor districts, the plaintiffs contend.

The suburban and rural districts were joined in the suit by the school boards of New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. The city officials developed the theory known as "municipal overburden"--namely, that large cities have such costly obligations for social services and handicapped and disadvantaged children that they are less able to pay for education than their property wealth might suggest.

The four cities have filed a separate appeal with the Supreme Court. The state has until mid-November to respond; the Court could decide any time after that whether to affirm the New York court's judgment or to schedule arguments.

Lower courts in New York sided with the plaintiffs, but state authorities put off making substantial changes in the state-aid formulas pending appeal. Since the state's highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, reversed the lower courts' rulings, Mr. Levitt said, the state legislature has little reason to change the current arrangement.

But, he and others familiar with the case added, the circumstances of the Levittown case, and the fact that they are documented and recorded more fully than those in Rodriguez, make the two different in certain important respects.

"The New York case raises, in a way that other school-finance cases haven't raised, the inadequacy of the system," said David Long, a Washington lawyer who has been involved in school-finance litigation in several states. "The [lower state courts] found that children in urban districts were denied a minimal education. That was one of the openings the Supreme Court left. They said they might have thought differently about the facts in Rodriguez if kids had been denied an adequate education."

The key legal issue, according to Mr. Levitt, is the standard of judicial scrutiny applied to a school-finance scheme. In Rodriguez, the Court held that Texas officials had only to prove that the state law had a "ra-tional basis"--a standard highly deferential to the states. The Court since then has tended to use a "sliding scale" in some types of civil-rights cases, demanding that the defendants show not only that their policies have a rational basis, but that their interests outweigh those of the plaintiffs.

The Plyler case was the first in which the Court applied this "sliding scale" to education, Mr. Levitt said.

In that case, the Court found that society's interest in providing free education to illegal aliens outweighed Texas's claim that educating such children would overtax the school system's resources.

While his primary objective is "just to win this case," Mr. Levitt said, "as an intellectual matter and generally speaking as matter of school-finance reform, I hope the Court will adopt a sliding scale for these kinds of cases."

Mr. Long, who is watching the cases closely, said he believed it was "worth trying," if only to put a more fully developed case before the Justices.

"Win or lose Levittown, it's one way of forcing the Court over the long haul to come to grips with the argument that it made a mistake in Rodriguez, to show that there are some serious problems left by the inadequacies of Rodriguez."

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