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Court Upholds Minn.'s System of Paying for Schools

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The Minnesota Supreme Court has upheld the state's school-finance system, declaring that while funding levels vary between districts, all of the state's schoolchildren receive an adequate education.

The 5-to-2 decision last month marked a victory for wealthy school districts that were alarmed by a 1991 decision by a district court that disparities between wealthy and poor districts should be erased.

The supreme court found that the state is meeting the Minnesota constitution's call for a "general and uniform system'' of education.

"The fact that plaintiff districts are receiving an adequate level of basic education is the primary distinguishing feature between plaintiffs' claim and those cases from other states in which a funding scheme has been found to violate a state constitutional provision,'' Chief Justice A.M. Keith wrote in the majority opinion.

Observers said the ruling is likely to kill a legislative effort to alter the existing school-funding system. But state lawyers argued that the court's decision reinforces for lawmakers that they are responsible for maintaining the state's schools.

"This doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement in the way Minnesota funds its schools,'' Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey 3rd said.

No Pressure, No Action?

Others, however, were less sure the state will act without court pressure.

"The court's decision today insures that some of our children will be less prepared than others for the difficult issues of the future,'' said Justice Alan Page in the dissent.

The decision, he added, tells poor children "that opportunities for the future which come with the best education are only available if they were fortunate enough to be born into a family living in a wealthy school district.''

In the 1991 ruling, a Wright County district judge faulted the state for allowing gaps of up to $1,700 per pupil in similar-sized districts.

The disparities in Minnesota arise largely from excess-levy referendums, in which voters can approve additional property taxes for schools. Because of their higher tax base, wealthy districts can raise significantly more money with the same tax rate as poor districts.

The decision marks the first significant setback to school-finance plaintiffs after court victories in a number of states in recent years. Similar school-funding litigation is pending in about half the states.

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