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Montana High Court Strikes Down State's School Funding System

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The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that Montana's public schools aren't adequately financed because the current funding system isn't based on "educationally relevant factors."

In a unanimous decision on Nov. 9, Montana's highest court upheld the ruling in April of Helena District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock that state funding for public schools is not sufficient. The three-page preliminary order also upheld Judge Sherlock's finding that the state's public education system is violating a mandate in the state constitution for schools to teach children about the heritage of American Indians.

The supreme court gave the Montana legislature until Oct. 1 of next year to come up with a better system for financing public education. Having rushed to issue a preliminary order on the matter so the legislature could address it in its upcoming session, the court will issue a full opinion at an unspecified, later date. State legislators are set to resume work Jan. 3 for a session expected to last 90 days.

The decision marked the second time the state's funding formula has been struck down since 1989.

For More Info
Read the Montana Supreme Court's preliminary order on the state's school-funding system. (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

Following the latest ruling, Montanans need to take a much closer look at the needs and true cost of public schooling, said Jack Copps, the executive director of the Helena-based Montana Quality Education Coalition, which filed the lawsuit in 2002. "We've only speculated in Montana the amount of resources our schools need. That's created great problems in our state."

He noted, for instance, that Montana's schools have difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers because they don't pay them as much as other states do.

But Brian Morris, the state solicitor who defended Montana in the case, said he's disappointed in the ruling. "We had urged the court to look at output measures such as graduation rates and what students are learning," he said.

Montana's schools measure up well, he said, in providing a high-quality education when compared with public schools in other states. He noted that Montana students perform well above average on standardized tests, their graduation rates are higher than for students in many states, and they are less likely to drop out of school than their peers in many states.

Low Teacher Salaries

Linda H. McCulloch, Montana's superintendent of public instruction, said she hopes the court decision will result in more money to pay teachers better salaries. Many Montana school districts offer a starting salary of less than $20,000 per year, and about 60 percent don't provide health insurance to their faculty, she said.

Both Republicans and Democrats who served on the state Senate's education committee in the most recent legislative session surmised that revamping the public funding system to meet the demands of the court would mean coming up with more dollars for schools.

"It probably will cost more money," said state Sen. William E. Glaser, a Republican who is the chairman of the Senate education committee. "That doesn't necessarily mean that on a given piece of property the taxes will go up. We've actually done quite well in our economy, when everyone else was struggling."

"I'd be surprised if everyone isn't resigned to the fact that we'll have to put more money into education," added state Sen. Mike Cooney, a Democrat on the same committee. The difficulty of resolving the issue, he said, will be agreeing on what level of funding is appropriate.

Robert R. Story Jr., a Republican member of the Senate education committee, said the state's formula for funding public schools is based on the number of pupils in a school, and places caps on what local school districts can spend in addition to what they receive from the state.

The system reflects revisions made more than a decade ago in response to a court ruling that the system wasn't equitable, he noted. Mr. Story said the existing system worked adequately when student enrollment was growing. But now that it has been declining, he said, school districts haven't been able to keep up with their fixed costs.

Montana provided $555 million for K-12 education in fiscal 2004, or 60 percent of the local and state money spent on public schooling.

Joyce Silverthorne, the head of the tribal education department for the Salish/Kootenai tribes of Montana and a former state school board member, said she was pleased the supreme court recognized the need for schools to carry out the state's constitutional mandate to teach all Montanans about their state's 12 American Indian tribes. "It requires funding to bring us together and develop a curriculum that incorporates the elements from each tribal group," she said.

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