Entire Kentucky School System Is Ruled Invalid

By Reagan Walker — June 14, 1989 7 min read
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Provide “equal educational opportunity” to all children, regardless of where they reside;

Acting in a case brought by 66 property-poor districts, the court ruled 5 to 2 that Kentucky’s entire system of school governance and finance violates the state constitution’s mandate for the provision of an ''efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”

The June 8 decision in Rose v. The Council for Better Education Inc. sets the stage for a legislative session that is all but certain to change the face of education in Kentucky.

The legislature’s next regular session is scheduled for January 1990, but lawmakers and Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson have haggled for more than a year over a proposed special session devoted to school reform.

The proposals that have been debated thus far, however, pale in comparison with the changes that will be required as a result of the state high court’s 101-page ruling.

‘The Whole Gamut’

Several prominent school-law experts said last week that no state or federal court had ever before issued so sweeping an order in a suit challenging inequities in state spending for schools.

The court struck down not only Kentucky’s school-finance laws, but also “the whole gamut of the common-school system,” including laws creating school districts, school boards, and the state education department, and other laws and regulations governing such matters as teacher certification and school construction.

“Lest there be any doubt, the result of our decision is that Kentucky’s entire system of common schools is unconstitutional,” wrote Chief Justice Robert F. Stephens for the majority. “This decision applies to the entire sweep of the system--all its parts and parcels.”

The court did not invalidate the laws individually, but rather “the statutory system as a whole.” It suggested that the General Assembly could reenact certain laws in their original form “if they combine with other component statutes to form an efficient and thereby constitutional system.”

Using an analogy to make his point, Justice Stephens wrote that “just as the bricks and mortar used in the construction of a schoolhouse, while contributing to the building’s facade, do not ensure the overall structural adequacy of the schoolhouse, particular statutes drafted by the legislature in crafting and designing the current school system are not unconstitutional in and of themselves.”

“Like the crumbling schoolhouse which must be redesigned and revitalized for more efficient use, with some component parts found to be adequate, some found to be less than adequate, statutes relating to education may be reenacted as components of a constitutional system,” he continued.

Breaking New Ground

According to school-law experts, the only other decision comparable in scope came in 1982, when a West Virginia trial judge ruled that his state’s system of financing public schools failed to meet the state constitution’s mandate for a “thorough and efficient” education.

In that case, Pauley v. Bailey, Judge Arthur M. Recht defined in minute detail the standards for providing such an education. But he struck down only the financial aspects of the state’s education system and not the system as a whole, as did the Kentucky court.

In addition, last November the West Virginia supreme court reversed a key part of Judge Recht’s decision that declared unconstitutional a state law permitting school districts to seek “excess” property-tax levies.

“Pauley was important because the courts began to get involved in the process of defining what the substance of education should be,” said Margaret Goertz, director of the division of education-policy research for the Educational Testing Service.

“This case sounds like the courts are taking it a step farther,” she added, “and calling into question the constitutionality of not just the finance laws but the laws defining the structure of education.”

A ‘Revolutionary’ Decision

Jay Heubert, chief legal counsel to the Pennsylvania education department, said the Kentucky court’s ruling was “revolutionary.”

Mr. Heubert, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer who is on leave from his faculty position at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, noted that many other state constitutions have education clauses similar to Kentucky’s.

“Even in those states where there has been successful school-finance litigation based on such provisions,” he said, “those provisions have not provided a basis for finding unconstitutional” a state’s entire education system.

“What this means,” he added, “is that state constitutional language of this kind may be used not merely to equalize funding levels, but to address more directly” the very essence of education.

While the Kentucky ruling is not binding in other states, Mr. Heubert said, “it offers an important new precedent that is certain to be explored” by advocates for disadvantaged students elsewhere.

The Kentucky high court’s decision, for example, cited the West Virginia ruling in establishing the court’s right to define in detail the components of an adequate education.

Historic Moment

In Kentucky, the ruling was hailed as a historic moment in state and national history.

The leaders of the General Assembly who were named as defendants in the case joined with the Governor and the state superintendent of public instruction at a press conference, where they pledged to begin working immediately to implement the court’s charge.

“The Supreme Court has given us an opportunity to start with a clean slate, and those of us in the executive and legislative branches are in agreement that we need to start from scratch,” said Governor Wilkinson.

“It is no longer a question of my plan or their plan,” he said in reference to the debate over the agenda for the proposed special session. “As of today, it’s our plan.”

Mr. Wilkinson also appeared to back away from his 1986 campaign pledge not to raise taxes. He said that when a new system was devised that provided equal educational opportunity, he would support “the necessary revenue measures to pay for it.”

Senate President Pro Tempore John A. Rose, one of the two chief defendants in the case, said he might seek clarification from the court, but would not request a rehearing.

Senator Rose said the magnitude of the job ahead was overwhelming. “It is certainly going to be a large task,” he said. “But I’m ready to scare the process along.”

“To say that this decision is historic or far-reaching is an understatement,” said John Brock, the state school chief. “In scope, breadth, and depth, this decision has no equal. ... It’s simple, it’s brilliant, and it’s no doubt revolutionary.”

‘No Rational Relationship’

In May 1988, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Ray Corns ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, holding that the state’s school-finance system “bears no rational relationship” to the state’s duty under its constitution.

The judge declined, however, to mandate a tax increase or other remedial steps, saying the principle of separation of powers prevented him from specifying “the methods by which the system can be made constitutional.”

Judge Corns sought to maintain jurisdiction in the case by ordering the General Assembly to report to him on the progress of its finance-reform efforts.

Lower Court Upheld

The supreme court upheld Judge Corns’s ruling regarding the school-finance laws and expanded upon it by declaring the entire school system unconstitutional.

It overturned his ruling with respect to the legislative reporting requirement, saying that it violated the principle of separation of powers.

But according to Debra Dawahare, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the high court “finessed” the jurisdictional issue by withholding final judgment in the case until the end of the 1990 legislative session.

“By withholding finality, they will get the same result as retaining jurisdiction,” she said.

“This ruling is an exciting victory for us,” Ms. Dawahare said. “We are pleased with the courageous stand the court appears to have taken.”

William E. Scent, chief counsel for the defendants, could not be reached for comment.

Legislature’s Duty

The supreme court held that under the constitution, it is the sole responsibility of the General Assembly to provide for an efficient system of common schools.

The court also ruled that the legislature must provide adequate funding for the system, but left the decision of how to do that to lawmakers.

The justices did note, however, that if the General Assembly plans to rely on property taxes to finance schools, all property must be assessed at 100 percent of its fair market value and tax rates must be uniform statewide.

The court also set criteria that the General Assembly must adhere to as it develops a new system.

To meet constitutional muster, it said, the new education system must:

Be free, substantially uniform, and available to all Kentucky children;

Provide “equal educational opportunity” to all children, regardless of where they reside;

Be monitored by the General Assembly to avoid waste, duplication, and mismanagement; and

Be funded sufficiently to provide each child with an adequate education.

The justices defined an adequate education as one that has as its goal the development of oral and written communication skills; knowledge of economic, social, and political systems; knowledge of governmental processes; knowledge of mental and physical wellness; grounding in the arts; training for academic or vocational pursuits; and sufficient skills to enable students to compete in the job market.

Associate Editor Tom Mirga and Staff Writers Nancy Mathis and Peter West contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 1989 edition of Education Week as Entire Kentucky School System Is Ruled Invalid


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