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Oregon Students' Suit Challenges State 'Safety Net'

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Upset by Oregon voters' rejection this spring of a constitutional amendment to ensure stable funding for schools, Dana Coffin, a senior at Cascade Union High School, began talking with her friends about ways they could help their district.

Someone suggested a lawsuit against the state, and that put "a bug in my ear," recalls Ms. Coffin, the president of the Salem-area school's student government.

On July 10, Ms. Coffin, Michael Boer, the student-government vice president and 1989 valedictorian, and Teresa Grant, the government's treasurer, filed a class action against the state of Oregon in federal district court.

"I just said, 'Well, shoot, I'm going to do this.' The kids behind me are going to have a terrible education if I don't," said Ms. Coffin, who will be a college freshman this fall and wants to study international law.

The students' suit, which contends that a school-funding provision of the state constitution violates their federal equal-protection rights, was one of several legal developments this summer that kept school finance a front-burner issue in state after state.

Action in States

The suit by Ms. Coffin and her fellow students came as a group of low-wealth Oregon districts continued its plans to challenge the constitutionality of the funding system in state court.

In North Dakota, nine school districts and 48 parents filed suit in state court on June 12 arguing that the state's funding system is illegal because it violates a constitutional mandate that the legislature provide a "uniform" system of education.

In Texas, the state supreme court on July 5 heard lawyers for the state and property-poor districts offer arguments on the constitutionality of that state's finance methods.

And in New Jersey, the state supreme court announced that it would hear arguments Sept. 25 in that state's long-running finance suit, Abbott v. Burke.

'Safety Net' Challenged

The federal suit filed by the Oregon students challenges the "safety net" provision that voters added to the state constitution in 1986 to stop a rash of school closings. The provision permits districts that have no permanent property-tax bases and whose levies are rejected by voters to continue levying taxes at the previous year's rates.

This spring, the state's voters defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have created tax bases in the 100 districts that do not have them.

Daniel J. Gatti, the lawyer representing the Cascade Union students, said he filed the case in federal court because the Oregon supreme court upheld the state finance system in 1976.

Mr. Gatti admitted he was facing an uphill task because in 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that education is not a fundamental right entitled to protection under the 14th Amendment.

"I've got to get around Rodriguez, no question about it," said Mr. Gatti. He said he had asked the federal court to rule only on the constitutionality of the safety-net provision, and not the finance system as a whole.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the coalition of districts planning to file suit in state court are awaiting a decision by the Oregon attorney general on whether a member of their legal team, who also serves as a state regent, may participate in the case.

Unlike the students, the districts plan to challenge the legality of the entire school-finance method.

Other Cases

In North Dakota, Clark J. Bormann, the lawyer for the parents and districts who filed suit, said his major emphasis would be that inadequate state funding has kept districts from being "uniform" as required by the state constitution.

Mr. Bormann noted that the equalization factor in the state's funding formula has not been changed since 1975. "The equalization factor is no longer responsive," he said.

Supporters of the plaintiffs in the Texas lawsuit, meanwhile, said they were buoyed by the tenor of the questions posed by the state supreme court during arguments in the case, Edgewood v. Kirby.

"From the questioning it seemed pretty clear they had already decided what they were going to do," saidel10lCraig Foster, executive director of the Equity Center, a group formed by the property-poor districts. "The consensus is we have won."

Attorney General Jim Mattox, who is defending the state, said he agreed the justices seemed prepared to find the funding method unconstitutional. The court is expected to issue its ruling at any time.

In New Jersey, lawyers for the students who have sued the state are preparing for the September hearing before the state's high court.

"The court recognizes the importance of this case," said Marilyn J. Morheuser, the students' chief lawyer, noting that the justices granted her request that they bypass normal appellate procedure and hear the case directly.

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