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Final Arguments Set in Washington Finance Suit

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Olympia, Wash.--Final arguments are expected next month in a court challenge to the level of financing that Washington state provides for local school districts.

After final briefs and arguments before Judge Robert J. Doran of the Thurston County Superior Court, the case goes back to the Washington Supreme Court for a final decision. That is not expected before April.

Seattle, the state's largest school district, and 25 other districts filed suit in the high court last spring, contending that the legislature's financial support for elementary and secondary education does not meet the state constitution's requirement that the state provide "ample" support for education.

'Basic Education'

The districts are seeking affirmation of the court's 1977 ruling that under Washington's strongly-worded constitution, the state is required to define and pay the full cost of "basic education." In their second bout in court, the 26 districts contend that state officials have failed to comply with both aspects of that ruling.

Testimony in the case ended in late December with two nationally known educational researchers--John Pincus, educational programs director for the Rand Corporation, and Henry M. Levin, director of the federally financed Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance at Stanford University, offering conflicting testimony.

Testifying for the defense, Mr. Pincus said Washington schoolchildren are already receiving about as much "basic education" as they can absorb.

Mr. Pincus, one of the authors of the book How Effective Is Schooling?, based much of his two days of testimony for the defense on an analysis he made of 88 Washington school districts, comparing 4th- and 11th-grade achievement-test scores.

There was no statistical correlation between the amount of money school districts spent or the size of their classes and test scores, Mr. Pincus testifed.

He concluded from the study, he said, that "traditional ways of spending money" on such things as class size or paying teachers for more experience in education, is not reflected in "student output"--by which he means test scores, he said.

"If our study has any validity, it shows that the average student has reached the point of diminishing returns for basic education if you define that in terms of what they are already doing," Mr. Pincus said. "If you just reimbursed people [school districts] for the costs of decreasing class size, you are not giving any incentive to change the way they are now doing things."

He contended, however, that selective spending on innovative programs designed to address well-recognized pupil needs does pay off in better test scores.

Mr. Levin, testifying in rebuttal to Mr. Pincus, called the study "quick and dirty." Such limited studies as the Rand effort should not be used by legislators or the courts to make decisions about education policy, he said.

In the 1960's and early 1970's, many school districts used big transfusions of federal education funds for general school programs, Mr. Levin said, not, as intended, for special programs, such as remedial and bilingual classes.

Studies immediately after that did, indeed, indicate that the extra spending did not make much difference in pupil scores, he said. But Mr. Levin stressed that when districts were required by tighter federal controls to use the money for its intended purposes, it did make a big difference.

Mr. Levin said that later and more sophisticated research has shown a closing of the gap between achievement scores of white and black students as a result of integrated schools and remedial programs. That was why, he said, he was surprised that the study by Mr. Pincus showed no significant difference between test scores of black and white students.

"Either this state has been successful in equalizing the achievement scores of black and white students, as has happened in no other state, or there has been ... an error," Mr. Levin said. "There are no grounds to believe that the problem has been solved in Washington."

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