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Recent Finance Activity Follows Disparate Patterns

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After years of easy-to-spot trends, the most recent surge of school-finance activity in state courts and legislatures finds some states retrenching while others confront fresh legal challenges. And some judges and lawmakers are expressing open frustration with their prolonged battles over the issue.

Courts and legislatures from Alabama to Idaho, and from Texas to West Virginia, are at such different points in their school-finance struggles that analysts say they are putting aside their national crystal balls to see each state on its own terms.

"For a while, all of us were trying to put it all in nice, neat boxes, but in the last six months it has all spun out of control and become so unpredictable," said Mary Fulton, a school-finance analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "Now when people ask me what is going to happen in their states, I just say here's what's happening everywhere else--you choose."

Earlier this month, as the Texas Supreme Court put an end to one of the country's longest-running school-finance cases by ruling that the legislature's most recent finance law passes constitutional muster, lawyers in West Virginia were reopening a case that was hailed in the 1980's as a revolutionary step toward ending funding disparities.

And as Gov. Jim Guy Tucker of Arkansas this month presented lawmakers with an ambitious school-finance-reform package that would reconstitute many of the state's school districts, Gov. Fob James Jr. of Alabama was consulting with lawyers over strategies for appealing a finance ruling after lawmakers and his predecessor, former Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., worked all last year on a solution that never materialized.

"No one can predict where a case might go or what a court might do," Ms. Fulton said.

Judicial Uncertainty

Some state judges themselves are apparently not sure what to make of the state of school finance these days.

In her dissenting opinion to the Texas high court's 5-to-4 ruling, Justice Rose Spector argued that after years of holding the state to a high standard of equity, the court had opted instead for a lower standard that would, at least for now, rid it of the finance issue.

"According to the majority, the consitution requires the legislature to provide a minimally adequate education, which the majority describes as a 'general diffusion of knowledge,"' Justice Spector wrote. "All of this will come as a surprise to the litigants. The 'general diffusion of knowledge' requirement has never been a part of this case."

Similarly, realizations by state lawmakers that finance reforms are both hard won and hard to pay for has led many states to shy away from big changes. The history of school-finance litigation, which has tied several states up in courts for years, may also be creating some reluctance among judges.

A state court in Florida this month dismissed a case there, citing a desire not to encroach on legislative turf. Recent months have also seen lower-court rulings upholding finance systems in Idaho, Maine, and South Dakota. As in Florida, many of the litigants are pushing appeals.

And at the same time, the supreme courts in Texas and Kansas have essentially signed off on the new finance systems enacted by the states' legislatures.

In both states, lawmakers decided to continue relying on local property taxes for much of their school funding but used different strategies to wipe out the most glaring local disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.

In Kansas, the state put in place a statewide property tax that the state distributes through a formula.

The Texas legislature chose to require its wealthiest school districts to choose from five options for shedding a portion of their property-tax revenue, making that money available to poorer districts.

On the Offensive

On the other hand, since last spring, school officials in Maryland, New Mexico, and North Carolina have filed constitutional challenges similar to the case that recently went to trial in West Virginia. Their suits argue that their states' finance systems create unconstitutional disparities.

And the supreme court in New Jersey once again sent the legislature there back to the drawing board, ruling unanimously last summer that the state must do more than it has to increase equity among its school districts.

In one of the nation's most unusual finance debates, North Dakota officials are aiming at revisions in their state finance system even though their supreme court--at the same time it found the system unfair--did not force any changes.

The court failed to reach the supermajority necessary to declare the finance system unconstitutional, but lawmakers took the decision as a signal that they should work to prevent future litigation. (related story.)

For coverage of individual state cases, see the following issues of Education Week: Alabama, Jan. 11, 1995; Arizona, Aug. 3, 1994; Arkansas, Nov. 23, 1994; Florida, May 4, 1994; Idaho, Dec. 14, 1995; Kansas, Dec. 14, 1994; Maine, June 8, 1994; Maryland, Dec. 14, 1994; New Jersey, Aug. 3, 1994; New Mexico, Feb. 1, 1995; North Carolina, June 1, 1994; North Dakota, Jan. 18, 1995; Ohio, July 13, 1994; South Dakota, Dec. 7, 1994; Texas, Feb. 8, 1995; and West Virginia, Feb. 1, 1995.

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