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Courts Set Back School-Finance Suits in Ill., Tenn.

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Judges in Tennessee and Illinois have dismissed school-finance lawsuits, in both cases ruling that the legislature--and not the courts--was responsible for any changes.

Although the decisions were seen as setbacks for the low-wealth-school-district plaintiffs in both states, the lawyers involved said they expected the cases to be appealed to each state's supreme court.

The Illinois dismissal last week was at the initial level of judicial consideration, in a county court. But the verdict in Tennessee was handed down this month by the state appeals court, which reversed a chancery-court judge's ruling for the districts.

Tennessee: A Silver Lining?

Tennessee officials said they will now take their case to a state supreme court that has an activist reputation. The appeals court's decision also may allow the high court to rule by early next year, before the legislature adjourns its 1993 session.

"This might be a silver lining,'' said Bill Emerson, the superintendent of the Crockett County schools and chairman of the Tennessee Small School Systems, a group of 75 districts challenging the current finance system.

The appeals court ruled 2 to 1 that the case did not prove discrimination and, therefore, did not warrant court intervention. "Except for vindication of constitutional and-or statutory rights, the courts are not at liberty to determine matters of political or governmental policy,'' Appeals Court Judge Henry Todd wrote.

In dissent, Judge Samuel Lewis said the trial demonstrated disparities in areas ranging from laboratories to music courses.

In light of the success of other recent school-finance challenges, State Attorney General Charles W. Burson said he was pleased with the court's decision."The court was careful to point out the dangers of blindly following the developments in other states; instead, we must focus on the language of our own constitution, laws, and conditions,'' he said.

Leaders of the low-wealth districts noted that their case has already prodded the legislature this year into adopting school reforms and a new finance formula. But only $113 million of the state's $2-billion education budget is distributed under the new, more equalized formula, and Mr. Emerson said he doubts state leaders would look out for the interests of the small schools if the lawsuit fails.

"The urban interests are in control of the legislature,'' he said. "We need the courts on our side.''

Illinois: No Second-Guessing

In Illinois, Cook County Judge Thomas J. O'Brien granted a state motion to dismiss the finance case and said that the state constitution and deliberations of a 1970 constitutional convention made clear that equal school funding was not guaranteed.

"It is not the business of the courts to second-guess the judgment of the legislature,'' he wrote.

Observers said the strong ruling dealt a setback to the school districts' case, and will heighten the importance of a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall that would strengthen the state's school-funding responsibility.

While the case is expected to reach the state supreme court, observers noted, districts also will more closely watch the work of the legislature, which has formed a task force on finance reforms.

The finance issue remains critical in Illinois, where per-pupil spending varied from $2,253 to $14,316 in 1989-90.

"The tremendous disparity in funding per pupil still exists,'' noted State Superintendent of Education Robert Leininger.

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