Published Online: February 12, 1997

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Court Orders Lawmakers To Fix Vermont School-Funding Formula

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The Vermont Supreme Court last week ruled that the state's school-funding formula is unconstitutional and told legislators to fix it.

The 25-page decision handed down Feb. 6 found that the aid formula leads to inequities based on a town's property wealth.

While "precisely equal" funding may not be achieved or even necessary, the ruling said, district wealth alone should not determine educational opportunity.

"We hold only that to fulfill its constitutional obligation the state must ensure substantial equality of educational opportunity throughout Vermont," the justices wrote.

It is now up to the state legislature to rework how school funds are distributed. Seventy percent of such funds come from local communities.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states, including New Hampshire and Ohio, where court decisions are pending. Last year, the Illinois high court said school funding led to inequities there, but stopped short of deeming the system unconstitutional. ("Ill. Court Delivers Ultimate Setback in School Finance Suit," Oct. 30, 1996.)

Clear Message

Last week's ruling in the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two students, two school districts, and five towns was so strong that it surprised some Vermont observers.

"The people here have been stunned by the eloquence and depth of the decision," said William Reedy, a general counsel for the state department of education. "It stresses the primacy of education in a free society."

The court cited huge gaps in property-tax bases available to schools.

For example, Richford's $140,000 per-student tax base limited spending to $3,734 per pupil in 1995. In contrast, Peru spent $6,476 per student from its $2.2 million per-pupil base.

The justices rejected the state's argument that the constitution guaranteed only a minimal level of education.

"To keep a democracy competitive and thriving, students must be afforded equal access to all that our educational system has to offer," they wrote.

Mr. Reedy said it's not clear what will happen now, however, particularly given that the legislature has for years tried unsuccessfully to fix the current funding system.

Democratic Gov. Howard Dean told local reporters that the decision should bolster the case for tax-sharing between rich and poor districts. "I think it will move the debate along with a certain amount of urgency," he said.

Relieved Mom

Carol Brigham, the mother of one of the plaintiffs, praised the decision.

"It's great. The best part is that it will force the legislature to do something this year," said Ms. Brigham, a board member in her daughter's school district, Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.

She said additional school funding in the poor agricultural community would help reinstate a part-time principal and upgrade technology at her daughter's school, which enrolls just 44 students in grades K-6.

Plaintiffs and other observers also expressed surprise at the court's ruling on the system's constitutionality. The question at hand was much narrower and concerned part of the original lawsuit that had been dismissed last fall in Lamoille Superior Court.

The plaintiffs and the state had appealed separate parts of that decision. Said Ms. Brigham, "We all expected to be back in superior court."

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