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Realizing Opportunity, Professors Court Role in Policy Debates

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GAINSVILLE, FLA.--On many questions related to school finance, Craig Wood is quick to note there are no sure answers.

After explaining how state legislatures across the country have largely abandoned their responsibility to fund school districts equitably, he notes that many of the lawsuits now arguing that very point are ill founded.

After comparing school-finance litigation to the civil-rights movement of the 1960's, he insists that he is no crusader.

And after reeling off a list of recent school-finance judgments, he notes that they easily could have gone the other way. With his help.

"That is essentially correct,'' he says, assuming that he could find a basis for turning the case around.

Mr. Wood, the chairman of the educational-leadership department at the University of Florida here, has joined with David C. Thompson, an associate professor of education administration at Kansas State University, in putting their academic experience into action.

A researcher whose most recent published works include "An Examination of the Florida Education Lottery'' and "Rapid Growth and Unfulfilled Expectations: Problems for School Finance in Florida,'' Mr. Wood's consulting firm has proved to be a compelling national sideline.

In places far removed from this plush, green campus, Mr. Wood's firm is advising the lawyers in a series of Midwest lawsuits that could reshape the course of the nation's school-finance debate. In Kansas and Oklahoma, Wood, Thompson & Associates is guiding low-wealth school districts suing the state. In South Dakota, the firm is working the other side.

In the Kansas case, the plaintiffs lay claim to a stern preliminary ruling by a district-court judge that has produced political gridlock between the Governor and the legislature and captured the attention of school-finance policymakers nationwide.

Mr. Wood pegs the firm's success thus far in Kansas, and, indeed, its overall reputation, to a single quality: its handling of data. For whether they are called on to face state officials who are at a loss to explain how statistics and policy are intertwined or local school administrators unable to tie local injustices to state laws, the researchers' combination of policy and data expertise is an attractive quality in an open and bustling market.

"The legal questions are generally constitutional in their crux,'' Mr. Thompson observes. "But instead of going in and arguing broad, vague constitutional issues, more and more they are becoming somewhat technical. The constitutional issues are still applied, but now it's more or less a question of proof.''

"School finance, in a sense, comes down to a very simple question: 'Does the finance formula meet the state's constitutional mandate?''' Mr. Wood says. "Of course, how you get there is another issue.''

The deceptive simplicity of the question has led many state and local school officials into court proceedings plagued by complex school-finance riddles.

The confused educator is a familiar sight at finance-case depositions, Mr. Wood says. And more than one state lawyer or administrator has been left dumbfounded at the mention of the "McLoone Index.''

"They are absolutely lost,'' Mr. Wood says, explaining the range of expenditure comparisons, statistical correlations, and program demographics routinely weighed and examined by school-finance researchers. The mounds of information offer an endless potential stream of information and detail. For those who wondered how long until retirement for the average guidance counselor in a wealthy school district with 500-book library, fully stocked chemistry labs, and large class sizes, it's in the data. More to the point, however, is the task of distinguishing between rich and poor schools.

"In one case, our data analysis is 150 pages single spaced,'' Mr. Wood confides. "There are no printouts there--that's another pile of paper somewhere else. Cases based on those types of arguments tend to be quite persuasive.''

A Matter of Data

Even when his is one of the few cars in the parking lot, it is a long walk from Mr. Wood's office to the car. He habitually parks it at the far corner of the asphalt lot, pulled forward into the farthest space at a slight inward angle. A precise man who punctuates his comments with the phrase "the data are very clear,'' Mr. Wood clearly has worked out how to avoid the probability of door "dings.''

At 44, Mr. Wood's thoughtful and quiet tone of voice, gray-tinged beard, and eye glasses make him the very picture of a college professor. Nevertheless, through his unusual combination of practice and preaching, Mr. Wood has created a bridge to the real world.

Like his colleagues, Mr. Wood entered the university ranks from teaching and school administration, in his case in Connecticut, Wisconsin, and his native North Carolina. His practical experience informed his research, first at Purdue University and now here. In turn, that expertise is demonstrated and applied in his consulting work.

"I would like to think we have a positive impact on states and children by using our research, and that is quite gratifying for us,'' he says. "It is not just an intellectual exercise, and I would argue that it improves the quality of our research and teaching.''

"We want to be perceived as part of the solution rather than just hired guns,'' Mr. Thompson adds.

The firm's extracurricular work over the past year has also given it a close look at the workings of state legislatures. In nearly half the states, lawmakers are facing lawsuits over school-finance formulas and often find themselves paralyzed in drafting court-ordered changes.

In his manner, Mr. Wood offers both criticism and explanations of the lawmakers' plight. While concluding that a bandwagon effect from recent court victories has spurred some unworthy constitutional challenges--"they don't have any more data than the man in the moon''--many states have let school inequities fester, he says.

"I don't think the framers of state constitutions ever visualized a system that would limit the next generation because of things outside their control,'' Mr. Wood says. "We have seen a resounding intolerance in putting more money in poor areas, and school districts in many states have come to the conclusion that their only hope is to go to court because no other mechanism has benefited them.''

The frustrated school districts have collided in court with officials from state education departments and attorney generals' offices. Mr. Wood contends that, to date, few cases have been rooted in solid research and that states, in particular, remain prone to losing court decisions.

"There are an abundance of school-finance formulas that are resonably adequate and equitable, but state education departments are often lost in defending them,'' he says.

"The management-information systems people know their data sets--I've been impressed,'' adds David S. Honeyman, an associate professor at the University of Florida who also works for the firm. "Where you run into trouble is that those people have no idea what the data is there for and how to use it to solve problems. There have been situations where state policy people know the numbers they've got, but there are just as many where they've got no idea.''

'Managing by Crisis'

As judges have overturned school-finance systems, often the most expensive undertaking of state government, lawmakers have increasingly found themselves at loggerheads as they search for an acceptable solution that will not outrage taxpayers.

While he criticized lawmakers at a recent conference on school-finance issues, Mr. Wood acknowledges that rebuilding school-funding systems is a tough job, but one that has too often been put off by procrastinating lawmakers.

"In school finance, the world may not be yes and no, good or bad, black or white,'' he says. "You've got state and local interests, and we've got to determine the curve of best fit. The problem has been that we have a whole body of research that says legislatures don't have a constitutionally effective program, but they continue to do it. But that's not to say legislatures are evil creatures.''

"Highly reflective in most state legislatures is that we manage by crisis,'' he says. "Now it's gotten to the point where we have to ask what crisis do we want to deal with first. They fall into their own trap.''

In the months ahead, it will be Mr. Wood and his colleagues working with low-wealth school districts hoping to snap the jaws of a few more traps and force lawmakers to deal with thorny school-funding issues.

"It's an economic-rights issue,'' Mr. Wood says. "The real cleavage of society has little to do with race, but everything to do with economics. Perhaps we have a window of opportunity over the next few years to do something about this issue, because if we continue down the current path in many states, they will soon be nothing more than third-world countries where we spend most of our energy building walls around our houses.''

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