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Published in Print: February 9, 2005, as Georgia Lawsuit Seeks Vouchers as Remedy to School Aid Disparities

Georgia Lawsuit Seeks Vouchers as Remedy to School Aid Disparities

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Adding a novel twist to the array of school finance lawsuits against states, a group of Georgia parents is asking a judge to declare both that the state’s education funding system is unconstitutional and that the remedy is not more money to public schools, but greater parental choice.

In the first of what school voucher advocates hope will be a string of similar suits, the Atlanta plaintiffs say they and other low-income parents are being denied their rights to equal access to high-quality schools by an array of government policies.

But they argue that public school districts should not reap the rewards of court orders aimed at improving that situation.

Instead, their lawsuit contends that solutions should include overturning Georgia’s residence-based method of assigning students, invalidating its school funding system, and giving parents the means to choose among public or private schools.

“We say that the remedy belongs to the parents,” said Glenn A. Delk, an Atlanta-based lawyer who represents the plaintiffs in the case, Williams v. Georgia.

Named for lead plaintiff Dana Williams, a single father of a 1st grader in the Atlanta public schools, the suit is against the state and the 51,000-student Atlanta school district.

Filed Jan. 27 in Fulton County superior court in Atlanta, the suit aims to piggyback on a case filed in September by the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia, a group of 51 mostly rural districts that say the state’s funding system has denied them enough money to fulfill their duties under the state constitution. ("Consortium of Georgia Schools Files Funding Lawsuit," Sept. 22, 2004.)

Mr. Delk hopes his case is consolidated with the districts’ case against the state. But a lawyer for the consortium said last week that the group opposes the remedies the Williams case is seeking.

“Our coalition is committed to improving the system of public education in Georgia through the public system,” said lawyer Thomas A. Cox, who is based in Decatur, Ga.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, said only that the state was reviewing the suit. Lawyers for the Atlanta district view the case as directed mainly at the state, a district spokesman said.

Broader Options Sought

The Williams case advances the standard school finance argument that heavy reliance on property taxes to pay for schools is unfair because it fosters inequities based on where students happen to live. And it argues that fixing that problem should entail a shift toward such revenue sources as statewide sales and income taxes.

But it also proposes remedies that go well beyond allocating more money to education or redistributing aid differently among districts. Those remedies include “opportunity scholarships” equal to public schools’ annual per-pupil spending that parents could use “at any school, public or private.”

The suit also argues that parents should have access to public schools outside their attendance areas and school districts, and that the state should remove impediments to the creation of more charter schools.

As a precedent for private school tuition vouchers in K-12 education, the suit cites Georgia’s funding of both public and private prekindergarten programs, as well as state-financed scholarships that students can use at the public and private colleges and universities of their choice.

Mr. Williams said last week that he and his fellow plaintiffs pursued their case after their neighborhood elementary school was closed last year.

He said they were unhappy with the schools offered as alternatives, although he managed to secure a transfer for his daughter to another school in the city. Still, he said, he would have preferred more options. “If I had a choice in the matter,” he said, “I would like to send her somewhere else that had better schools.”

Twin Goals Seen

In preparing the Georgia suit, Mr. Delk consulted last fall with a task force on a national litigation strategy assembled by the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy group for school vouchers.

Clint Bolick, a veteran voucher litigator who is now the alliance’s president and general counsel, said last week that he expected the Georgia case to be the first among several that seek public funding of private schooling as a remedy for allegedly inadequate education systems.

Clint Bolick

“There is active discussion of the voucher remedy in about a half-dozen states right now,” he said.

The twin goals of such suits, Mr. Bolick added, are “to make the funding-equity suits more child-centered, with more realistic remedies,” and “to provide an opportunity for school choice supporters in states where legislative prospects are not bright.”

One such state is New Jersey, he said, where voucher supporters see their chances of winning in court as better than in the legislature. Advocates of greater funding for poor urban school districts have won landmark legal victories there, meaning that the fundamental right to a high-quality education is firmly established in the state’s legal precedents.

“So in our view, that would be an ideal place to go seeking a voucher remedy,” Mr. Bolick said.

Vol. 24, Issue 22, Page 17

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