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Idaho Response to School-Adequacy Suit Is Monetary

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While school-finance lawsuits have spurred dramatic overhauls of K-12 systems in states like Kentucky, Texas, and Alabama, Idaho policymakers have taken a more cautious approach.

In April, the Idaho legislature passed a law revamping the state's finance system to funnel more state aid to districts with low property wealth. Lawmakers also hiked K-12 appropriations by 18 percent, the largest percentage increase in the state's history. (See Education Week, April 14, 1994.)

As a result, about half of the 40 districts suing the state withdrew from the litigation last summer.

"Even though it did not accomplish 100 percent of our goals, it accomplished enough so we felt we could drop the lawsuit," said Bob Haley, the superintendent of the Meridian school district, one of the former plaintiffs.

Two groups of districts had sued the state, arguing that the finance system was unconstitutional because the state had failed to support a "uniform and thorough" system of public education as required by Idaho's constitution. One group focused on spending disparities, the other on the total amount of money spent.

Last year, the state supreme court threw out the equity argument, but sent the case back to district court to examine whether the state was meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a "thorough" system of education. A 1995 trial date was set to allow the legislature time to act.

Observers say the primary remaining issue is whether lawmakers will come up with some $700 million districts are estimated to need for school construction and repairs.

The legislature may try to resolve the problem, or merely hope that the state's courts will not follow the example of the state supreme court in Arizona, which ruled that state's finance system unconstitutional because it created "enormous disparities" in districts' ability to build and maintain schools.

"The legislature has made a good-faith effort, and I really believe the courts have recognized that," said Ronald L. Black, the chairman of the House education committee. "You can only dig so far until the pot becomes empty."

A 'Traditional' Case

"Idaho is more of a traditional finance case about fiscal disparities," said Allan Odden, a school-finance expert at the University of Wisconsin. "You may modestly increase some taxes and modestly lower some others, but the changes tend to be less radical."

The Idaho case stands in sharp contrast to others in Texas and New Jersey, where the states' highest courts have ruled entire finance systems unconstitutional. And in Alabama and Missouri, setbacks in lower courts have prompted lawmakers to tackle broader school-reform issues in tandem with efforts to alter the way schools are financed.

"In the long run ... you'll see more courts opting for more drastic measures, and fewer courts opting for the Idaho approach," said David Thompson, a professor of education finance at Kansas State University.

"But this should not delegitimize the approach that Idaho took," he added. "When the aggrieved are satisfied, there's an argument to be made, 'Wasn't that the point of the lawsuit in the first place?"'

Often, he and others noted, legislatures' actions are driven by what the courts require.

And John Augenblick, a Denver-based school-finance consultant, said that taking on other reform issues along with school finance has become less appealing to lawmakers. "There was a time when people would have liked to see Kentucky done 49 more times, but it has become difficult to try to do it all together," he said.

Idaho's school system was not "all bad," said John Hanson, the chairman of the Senate education committee. "Sometimes, I think it's not necessary to tear it up and throw it away and start over."

Definining Adequacy

Mary Fulton, a school-finance expert at the Education Commission of the States, noted that the Idaho judge, having decided that the issue was adequacy rather than equity, set as a definition of adequacy whether schools met state accreditation standards.

Such an approach, she said, was a more traditional route than the one taken by courts in Kentucky, where adequacy was tied more to student outcomes than system inputs.

Although this approach may be less radical, Ms. Fulton said, the legislature still has a job to do.

"They'll have to come up with pretty strong evidence that the system provided sufficient resources for districts to meet accreditation standards," she said.

If lawmakers can do that, it might raise questions about how districts use their money.

"Some of the plaintiff districts might need to be careful that if they start barking, they're not the ones that get bit," Ms. Fulton said.

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