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Tenn. School-Funding System Found Unconstitutional

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A Tennessee judge last week declared the state's system of funding public schools unconstitutional.

The action further complicated the education picture in the Volunteer State, where lawmakers earlier this year failed to pass a comprehensive school-reform bill proposed by the governor that would have corrected funding disparities.

Neither state nor local school funding is equalized to the point that it satisfies the state constitution's mandate of providing a system of "uniform" schools, according to Chancellor C. Allen High, who did not endorse any of the state's arguments in his 15-page opinion.

"The evidence in this case reveals an impermissible disparity among the counties of this state in the quality of education it provides its children," Chancellor High wrote, ruling the case showed that the level of school spending often dictates the success a child can expect.

"The evidence indicates a direct correlation between dollars expended and the quality of education a student receives," the judge wrote. Students in the 77 poor school districts that filed the lawsuit against the state4"are not afforded substantially equal access to adequate laboratory facilities, computers, current and new textbooks, adequate buildings, advance-placement courses, varied curriculum, advanced foreign-language courses, music and art courses, drama and television courses."

"Plaintiff's districts also fail in their efforts to retain teachers, fund needed administrators, and provide sufficient physical education and other programs," he added.

Income-Tax Obstacle

Gov. Ned McWherter, whose reform proposal had sought both to revise the school-finance system and institute a wide range of other school improvements, last week was restrained in responding to the decision. "The legal process is ongoing, and I do not want to say anything that may interfere with further decisions in the case," he said in a statement. The state is expected to appeal the chancery-court ruling to the state supreme court.

The ruling came just days before a House-Senate conference committee was scheduled to begin meetings aimed at working out differences in reform bills based on the Governor's proposal.

The measures had stalled in the legislature this year after lawmakers tabled the Governor's plan to fund school improvements and tax reforms by creating the state's first income tax. Facing a budget shortfall, legislators were unable to consider funding for the school-reform package and in fact cut school funding for the upcoming year by $120 million.

In his ruling, Chancellor High argued that in order to meet constitutional muster, state funding will have to increase and erase local disparities.

Due largely to local revenue, the state's richest district spent $110,727 per classroom in 1988-89, while the poorest spent $49,167, he noted.

"Most of this variation results from the state's higher reliance on local government to fund education and the varying ability of the local government to raise sufficient funds," the judge said.

Some observers said that last week's ruling might persuade Governor McWherter to call the General Assembly into special session to address the funding issue. But Senator Ray C. Albright, chairman of the chamber's education committee, said he expected that the timing of an appeal would set the stage for consideration of the issue during the next regular session early next year.

Eroding Reform's Foundations

In the meantime, school officials said, reductions forced by state budget cuts will erode part of the foundation upon which the school-reform plan had intended to build.

In the metropolitan Nashville district, for example, a $4.5-million deficit led school officials to cut 108 teachers'-aide positions in grades K-3. One of the reform plan's provisions would have significantly reduced student-teacher ratios in the primary grades.

Some poorer districts have considered opening late this fall because of a lack of funds.

While the court's ruling may push the legislature toward action, Senator Albright suggested, it may take draconian school cuts to convince voters that tax reform is necessary.

"I do not believe our people are ready to accept an income tax yet,'' he said last week. "Even though we said these cuts are coming, there has been a distrust of us and of the Governor and of the local systems that were telling them the truth about this."

Officials in the state capital said the court's decision was timely, since many people were awaiting the suit's outcome before deciding what political steps would follow.

"It's a hurdle that we need to get over and see what's on the other side," said Brad Hurley, executive assistant to Commissioner of Education Charles E. Smith. But even as the finance case moves toward resolution, he said, many educators continue to feel frustrated about the outcome of this year, which started off with expectations of enacting the Governor's four-year, $590-million reform plan and now is dominated by a mood of fiscal austerity.

"It's been horrible what's happened in Tennessee this year, but this will cast a whole new light on it," said Bill Emerson, a superintendent and chairman of the small-schools group. "This is a 100 percent victory."

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