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High Court Declines To Hear N.Y. SuitOn School Financing

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal last week to hear Levittown v. Nyquist, one of the nation's best-known school-finance cases, reaffirms that the issues surrounding state and local financing of public schools must be decided by the states under state constitutions, experts said last week.

Levittown, N.Y., and 26 other relatively poor districts, as well as four large cities in the state, asked the Court to consider their claim that New York State's dependence on property taxes for its school-finance system creates a "double standard" in public education.

But the Court--in its first look at the issue of equity in educational finance since 1973, when it concluded in San Antonio Public School District v. Rodriguez that education is not a fundamental constitutional right--rejected the plea without comment.

"For the moment, this spells the end to federal claims," said Daniel P. Levitt, the plaintiffs' principal lawyer in the suit, initiated in 1974. "It says, 'If you're going to do anything [to change school funding], do it in the state courts."'

The districts had claimed that the disparity in school spending violated the equal-protection and education clauses of the state constitution and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Mr. Levitt said the Court's action might "poison the climate," but noted that by forcing litigants to deal exclusively with state laws it could help clarify the legal issues in such cases.

Favorable Response

He noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court responded favorably to finance-reform litigation on state constitutional grounds immediately after the Rodriguez decision.

A similar school-finance case is now before the Maryland Court of Appeals.

"It was important to take up Levittown, because when the Court has reversed itself, it is because it has become aware over time of the problems of earlier decisions," said David Long, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "The inequity problem is going to fester, and at some time in the future the Court will [reconsider Rodriguez]."

Added John Silard, another attorney in the case: "I can't believe that this is the final word."

In Rodriguez, the Court stated that Texas officials had to apply a "rational basis" in financing education, but said that education was not a constitutional right. The Court has since used a "sliding scale'' to weigh the interests of the governments and residents seeking education.

Levittown and the other plaintiffs argued that the state's dependence on property taxes to fund schools contributed to educational inequities across the state, because property values vary widely and many communities have a limited tax base. The state government paid about $4.2 billion of the $10 billion spent last year on education in New York.

The plaintiffs had prevailed in three lower New York state courts, but those decisions were overturned last summer by the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

The districts took the case to the Court because they saw a "ray of hope" in the Plyler v. Doe Court case in June, Mr. Levitt said. In that case, the Court stated that, although education is not a fundamental constitutional right, it is the most important public service that governments render.

'Property-Poor' Districts

Under the current financing formula in New York, "property-poor" districts often tax property at a significantly higher rate than others but spend much less on schools. Levittown's tax rate, for example, is 50-percent higher than that of wealthier Great Neck, but per-pupil expenditures are about 50 percent less.

Acknowledging such disparities, former Gov. Hugh L. Carey last year proposed increasing the sales tax by one cent and reducing aid to wealthier districts. The proposal met opposition in the legislature.

Mr. Carey's successor, Mario M. Cuomo, now faces what some analysts say might be a $1.8-billion deficit in the state's $17.7 billion budget.

The new governor has pledged to send a new proposal to reform the state's school-finance program to the legislature this year, but observers say its chances of passage would be slim under the circumstances.

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