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Idaho Finance Suit Turns on Meaning of 'Thorough Education'

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An unusual school-finance suit in Idaho has touched off a sharp battle between state leaders and school districts over the definition of an adequate education.

The adequacy issue--which in Idaho constitutional parlance centers on the meaning of a "thorough education''--sparked a flurry of legal moves this summer with distinctly partisan overtones.

The 50 school districts that have filed suit against the state accuse the legislature of failing to provide enough money to fund a thorough education, while state officials charge instead that the districts themselves are responsible for any budget difficulties.

The Idaho case differs from most of the school-finance lawsuits currently pending in about 25 states, which have focused on disparities between property-rich and property-poor districts. One similar case is in Alabama, where a judge ruled this spring that the entire state education system was unconstitutionally inadequate. (See Education Week, June 23, 1993.)

The Idaho Supreme Court in March ruled against a challenge to funding disparities in the state system, but sent back to a lower court for further review the plaintiffs' claim that the state does not appropriate enough general aid to provide a thorough education for all students.

At the behest of the Republican leaders of the legislature, State Attorney General Larry EchoHawk in July filed a counterclaim rebutting the districts' stance.

The state counterclaim alleges that the plaintiffs are not utilizing existing funding mechanisms to their full extent, and argues that the districts should:

  • Raise property taxes if they are not already levying up to the statewide average.
  • Shift funds spent on programs and services not legally required by the state to those that are mandated.
  • Manage their existing funds differently, such as redrawing school-enrollment boundaries if one school exceeds state limits on class size and another school in the same district falls below them.

The state also asked the court to dismiss from the suit any districts currently meeting state accreditation standards, contending that compliance with the standards is evidence of providing a thorough education.

'All Politics'

The G.O.P. leadership's response to the suit stirred hard feelings in the legislature, where Republicans hold commanding majorities in both chambers.

Within a few days of the action, Senate Democrats had filed a motion asking that they not be considered participants in the counterclaim.

"We were not included in the plans for the counterclaim, and when I was able to read a copy, I just recognized that we did not agree with any of its findings or conclusions,'' said Mary Lou Reed, the Senate minority leader.

"I personally thought the claims were outrageous,'' Ms. Reed said. "I think it didn't make sense to me to try to point the finger of blame at the school districts or to attempt to balance the budget on the backs of the teachers.''

But Speaker of the House Michael K. Simpson described the Democratic opposition as being "all politics, that's what it is.''

"They cannot legally separate themselves from the counterclaim,'' he argued.

Mr. Simpson also labeled Ms. Reed's comments "irresponsible'' and asserted that districts have received a 10 percent average budget increase every year for the past decade.

The Vagueness of Thoroughness

Meanwhile, Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, a Democrat, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jerry L. Evans, a Republican, have appointed a task force on the thoroughness question. Both officials have pushed for more education funding than the legislature has provided in recent years.

Grappling with the complex issues raised by the suit has left the task-force members and many others scratching their heads.

"If you talk to a legislator about what does 'a thorough system of free common schools' mean, you will probably get a different answer than walking down the road a ways and talking to a parent, or walking up the street and talking to a businessman,'' said Robert Dutton, a co-chairman of the task force.

"'Equity' is another term that is bantered around and may have different meanings to people,'' observed Mr. Dutton, the associate state superintendent for finance and administration. "But 'thoroughness' is perhaps a bit more vague.''

Currently, the task force is trying to establish what Mr. Dutton termed a "reasonable definition of 'thoroughness,''' After that, it will consider how to measure if schools are meeting standards of thoroughness and how existing state regulations fit into the equation.

The legislature has also appointed its own task force to review current state education regulations to determine if any need to be eliminated or updated.

The district court considering the case is expected to hold its next hearing next month.

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