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Court Again Strikes Down Wyo. Finance System

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In declaring Wyoming's school-funding system unconstitutional earlier this month, the state supreme court may have sown the seeds for a new round of school-finance litigation across the country.

Many states, Wyoming included, have seen their finance systems struck down in recent years. But the Wyoming court's unanimous Nov. 8 ruling orders the legislature to conduct a study to determine the elements of a complete "education package" for every Wyoming child, based in part on a statewide curriculum and educational standards. After calculating how much that would cost, the court said lawmakers must pay for it. A new system must be in place by July 1997.

The ruling struck down the state's "recapture" system--the so-called Robin Hood strategy that has been employed in states like Texas in recent years--instructing lawmakers that even with some sharing, the system is unfair.

To make matters worse, the court said, school-funding levels are set without reason.

"Supporting an opportunity for a complete, proper, quality education is the legislature's paramount priority; competing priorities not of constitutional magnitude are secondary, and the legislature may not yield to them until constitutionally sufficient provision is made for elementary and secondary education," the ruling said.

The justices sounded an argument popular among school-finance experts: that states have focused too heavily on equality of programs between districts, and not enough on the quality of programs themselves.

"A lot of people have expected the courts to begin moving away from fiscal equity to the question of adequacy," said David C. Thompson, a professor of school administration and a school-finance expert at Kansas State University in Manhattan. "You aren't going to see people rushing pell-mell that way, but this is definitely a new way that these cases might start going."

A Long Battle

Wyoming's struggle with its finance system dates to 1980, when the high court ruled that the state failed to afford equal protection as mandated by the state constitution. Since then, the legislature has taken steps to reduce disparities between the state's large districts, which have initiated the lawsuits, and small ones, which have tended to see extra state aid under the current system.

In 1983, state lawmakers tried to comply with the ruling by mandating minimum local tax levies and creating the recapture program, which forces wealthy districts to share part of their local revenues, which in Wyoming often derive from land rich with mineral deposits.

Lawmakers called the 1983 program transitional, and pledged that it would be replaced by a new system structured more accurately to measure the costs of education.

But that never happened.

"The legislature has not done what it promised," Justice Richard Thomas, the only member still on the supreme court who was involved in the 1980 ruling, said in a concurring opinion this month. "Instead of reducing disparity in funding education, that disparity has been exacerbated."

A state district judge ruled in 1992 that while the system does lead to inequities in per-student funding, it does not necessarily violate the state constitution. But the supreme court handed the plaintiffs an all-out win and saddled lawmakers with a groundbreaking job.

"We're delighted," said Renae Humburg, the superintendent for the 14,000-student Laramie County School District No. 1, which serves Cheyenne. "The present method is so distorted and convoluted that it was difficult to do any long-range planning."

The legislature now must describe what a proper education is for every Wyoming child. The court said features of a high-quality education would certainly include: small schools, small class size, low teacher-student ratios, low computer-student ratios, a uniform statewide curriculum, ample programs for students who need extra help, high standards, and meaningful assessment of student progress in a core curriculum and core skills.

Fears Expressed

Some small school districts said last week they feared the fallout from the decision would raise taxes, strip localities of control, and force districts to consolidate.

In the past, small districts have set their priorities to meet local demands, said Doug Thompson, the school board chairman in the 46-student Freemont County School District No. 9.

He fears the cost of the court's mandate could be high. Moreover, he said, when localities are stripped of their decisionmaking power, "generally the educational product is one of mediocrity."

At a meeting following the ruling, Gov. Jim Geringer told a group of educators that while the decision would likely reduce local control, he would work to ensure that districts maintain some authority.

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