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Momentum for Challenges to Finance Systems Still Seen Strong

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Despite mixed messages in a trio of state supreme court decisions on education finance handed down over the summer, momentum for court challenges to school-funding systems remains strong, experts agree.

Since June, supreme courts in Massachusetts and New Jersey have struck down those states' finance systems. In Minnesota, on the other hand, the high court reversed a lower-court ruling and upheld the state's finance system.

"The momentum isn't abating,'' said Kern Alexander, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "It is going to keep humming for some time.''

"It is still about as close to a coin toss as you can get,'' said G. Alan Hickrod, the director of the Center for the Study of Educational Finance at Illinois State University. "That has been the case all the way back to 1970.''

In examining the recent cases, some observers see the entire range of school-finance struggles. "It is a good illustration of the whole landscape,'' said Mary Fulton, an analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

New Jersey, for example, with its deep funding problems and strong court mandate, shows how hard it can be to draft a plan that will resolve huge disparities, Ms. Fulton observed. But the outcome in Minnesota, by contrast, reflects an effort by state leaders between the lower-court ruling and the final decision to address judicial concerns.

Massachusetts, Ms. Fulton added, realized its precarious situation and passed a school-reform plan that will allow lawmakers not to have to start from scratch in addressing the court's concerns.

In the end, she said, the decisions show the distinctions that make it tough to draw sweeping conclusions.

"I'm sure it is very frustrating for lawyers because they like to see trends and there are no trends here,'' Mr. Hickrod agreed.

Analysts said the chief lesson from the three cases may come from Minnesota, where the plaintiff school districts agreed in court that the state funded all of its schools to an adequate level. Instead, they argued that the system should not allow significant disparities.

After a strong lower-court ruling backing the plaintiffs' position, the supreme court seized upon the adequacy question and ruled that if the state is funding schools to an adequate level, its constitutional burden has been met.

"Minnesota does not have the disparities other states have, and stipulating adequacy was probably a tactical mistake,'' Mr. Alexander said.

"With New Jersey and Massachusetts running back to back, though, the Minnesota decision is not that important,'' he added. "This will all keep churning.''

Increasing Challenges Seen

Indeed, observers point to a map busy with legislative and court activity.

In addition to the responses from state officials in New Jersey and Massachusetts, officials in Tennessee are also grappling with what must be done to satisfy a supreme court ruling last year that overturned the state's finance system.

Alabama leaders are working on a reform package meant to answer a lower-court ruling that overturned the finance system, which officials have said they will not appeal.

In Michigan, lawmakers are developing a new finance system after in effect overturning the existing funding scheme themselves by voting to cut off property-tax funding to schools beginning next year.

A North Dakota task force has started exploring school-finance issues after a district court struck down the state's system. Officials are awaiting a final ruling from the supreme court by year's end.

Analysts see policymakers scrambling harder than ever to get a handle on the growing issues involved in the debate.

"Legislatures are still responding to school finance like they have over time, but the issues have grown and the challenges have increased,'' said John L. Myers, a Denver-based school-finance consultant.

Looking Ahead

As a number of states respond to recent decisions, court action is also heating up in several other states where lawsuits have been pending.

In addition, Florida and a few other states have also indicated that they may soon enter the picture.

A state court is expected to rule in the next few weeks on the finance system that Kansas lawmakers adopted after a judge two years ago advised that their system was in serious disrepair.

The new system, which moves toward a statewide property tax in an effort to reduce local spending disparities, has come under heavy political fire.

The Nebraska supreme court last week refused to send a lawsuit to trial but did not rule out new challenges.

A state judge in Texas will hear arguments over that state's latest school-finance law later this fall. The system--the third such plan adopted by the legislature in an effort to satisfy the courts--faces opposition from poor and wealthy districts.

An Ohio court has set an October date to start a school-finance trial. Observers expect the Ohio case to receive considerable national attention, both because of the size of the state and its huge spending disparities.

Trials are also likely next year in Pennsylvania and South Dakota, and action could soon resume in Maine and Indiana.

In other places, officials are trying to stay ahead of the courts. In Mississippi, for example, a task force is now researching finance-adequacy issues in an effort to head off a legal challenge.

For coverage of individual state cases, see the following issues of Education Week: Alabama, April 14, 1993; Kansas, Dec. 4, 1991; Massachusetts, June 23, 1993; Michigan, Aug. 4, 1993; Minnesota, Sept. 8, 1993; Nebraska, April 7, 1993; New Jersey, Sept. 8, 1993; North Dakota, Feb. 17, 1993; Tennessee, March 31, 1993; Texas, June 2, 1993.

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