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Courts Back Finance Systems in Okla., Fla.

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Oklahoma's highest court and a trial court in Florida have rejected arguments by school districts that those states' school-finance systems violate the rights of children residing in areas with low property values.

In a Nov. 24 decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held 5 to 3 that neither the federal nor state constitution requires the legislature to ensure that spending per pupil be equal throughout the state. That ruling appears likely to end a suit by a coalition of 38 property-poor districts that has been pending for five years.

And in Florida on Nov. 18, a county circuit judge rejected claims by 22 districts that the state finance system's heavy reliance on property taxes, which results in wide spending disparities among districts, violates the state constitution's mandate that the legislature provide "for a uniform system of free public schools."

A lawyer for the Oklahoma plaintiffs said last week that it would be several days before a decision was made on whether to seek a rehearing before the state high court or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling.

But the decision appears likely to stand in any event. The Oklahoma court's ruling relied heavily on the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision that state systems of school finance that result in unequal spending per student do not violate the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has consistently reaffirmed that ruling in subsequent cases.

The lawyer for the Florida plaintiffs, meanwhile, has filed a motion seeking a rehearing before the county circuit court.

Oklahoma Case

The Oklahoma suit was filed in 1980 by 54 schoolchildren, 48 taxpayers, and the Fair School Finance Council, an umbrella group representing the 38 districts, which together enroll just under 180,000 students.

The plaintiffs alleged that the finance system's overreliance on property taxes as a source of revenue, combined with the state school-aid formula's inability to compensate fully for spending disparities among districts, violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, as well as the state constitution's due-process and education clauses.

A state trial court upheld the constitutionality of the finance system in 1981 without having held a trial. The appeal went directly to the state high court, which heard arguments in the case in 1982.

"The fact that there may be flaws in the administration of [property taxes] does not support a claim that the entire school-finance system is unconstitutional because some of its revenues are derived from those taxes," wrote Justice Marian Opala for the majority in the decision handed down last month.

Turning to the issue of the alleged violation of the federal Constitution, Judge Opala noted that the plaintiffs "have not alleged that they have been absolutely denied a free public education, nor that they are not receiving an adequate one."

"Instead, they claim only that8they are not able to provide as much money per pupil as do other districts," she continued. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedents, "such [a] distinction does not constitute a denial of equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment."

Nor does the state constitution require equal spending per pupil, Justice Opala wrote. "The right guaranteed [by the state constitution] is a basic, adequate education according to the standards that may be established by the state board of education," she held. "There is nothing in our previous decisions which suggests that the legislature must provide equal expenditures per pupil in order to accomplish this objective."

Florida Dispute

Like their counterparts in Oklahoma, the 22 property-poor Florida districts allege in a suit filed last year that overreliance on property taxes results in spending disparities among districts. That situation, they claim, violates the state constitutional requirement for uniform public education.

In a brief order, Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lewis Hall granted partial summary judgment for the state defendants in the case, agreeing with them that the state supreme court had held the finance system constitutional in a 1981 case.

Graham Carothers, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said last week that the judge's ruling was incorrect because the finance law at issue in the previous case has since been revised by the legislature.

"If his ruling sticks, it would be substantially disadvantageous to our case," he said.

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