Ruling Called Step Toward Union of Reform, Equity Issues

By Nancy Mathis — June 21, 1989 5 min read

The Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision that the state’s entire system of public schools is unconstitutional represents the biggest step yet toward the merger of school-reform and finance-equity issues, education-law experts said last week.

“As we look to the future, school-finance formulas are being linked to student outcomes,” said John L. Myers, the National Conference of State Legislatures’s senior program director for education.

The Kentucky court’s June 8 decision, he said, “took a giant step” in that direction by holding that “there needs to be overall reform and it’s not sufficient to deal with just how money is distributed.”

The court determined not only that education is a fundamental right under the Kentucky constitution, but that all of the state’s children are entitled to an “adequate education.”

It also ruled it is the legislature’s responsibility to provide adequate funding to the state’s schools so that every child has an equal opportunity for such an education.

Kent McGuire, senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, said that although the ruling was “clearly unique,” he was “not surprised that the court would try to reach beyond the measure of fiscal inequalities to suggesting the parameters of the remedy.”

Mr. McGuire noted that the precedent for courts to extend their decisions beyond the issue of equitable distribution of state aid was set in a 1978 Washington State case and one in West Virginia in 1982.

“The suits in both cases were arguing basic finance issues but had implications for the quality of education,” he said.

In West Virginia, as in Kentucky, the state constitution requires the state to provide an “efficient” system of education.

In his 1982 ruling in the West Virginia finance case, Pauley v. Bailey, a state trial judge outlined in minute detail what courses, staffing, facilities, and student outcomes represented an “efficient” system of education. Until the Kentucky decision, the West Virginia case was considered the most extensive of the 10 successful school-finance lawsuits filed since the 1970’s.

John Pisapia, West Virginia’s interim state school superintendent, said finance questions were secondary issues in the Pauley case. He said the state was making progress in implementing its 20-year master plan to improve student performance.

“It was really the first shot at saying the schools needed to be reformed and needed to be reformed in a certain way, and the state had an obligation to fund those efforts,” said Mr. Pisapia.

In a similar case, the Washington Supreme Court in 1978 ordered specific education reforms when it overturned the state’s funding method. A trial court had held that “basic education” must include special-education, bilingual, and remedial programs.

The Washington constitution requires the state to provide “an acceptable basic education.” The state high court ruled it could not decide whether a new finance plan was equitable until it was first found to offer “an ample provision for the education of all children.”

Unlike the West Virginia judge, the Washington court also ruled that state revenue shortfalls were no excuse for a failure to fulfill the constitutional mandate for an acceptable system of education. That provision has resulted in almost full state funding of the schools.

Richard Salmon, professor of education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and an expert witness for the Kentucky plaintiffs, said the state has had a major problem funding its schools.

“There just wasn’t enough money to do what most people in government thought schools should be doing,” he said.

Mr. Salmon added that the most important part of the court’s ruling was its definition of efficiency.

The court outlined nine characteristics of an efficient education system, including that school be free, availel15lable, uniform, and adequate.

An adequate education, it continued, includes seven components, such as sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems and sufficient oral and writing skills.

Although the Kentucky court’s ruling is binding only in that state, it may be used by lawyers representing property-poor school districts in other states. School-finance cases are pending in New Jersey, Texas, Tennessee, and Minnesota.

The New Jersey and Texas cases are before supreme courts. The Minnesota and Tennessee lawsuits have yet to go to trial.

In Tennessee, Hardy Mays said the property-poor districts he represents have raised similar issues concerning the adequacy of the education system, but they have asked only that the school-finance formula be declared unconstitutional.

He added, however, that he planned to mention in his arguments both the Kentucky ruling and the Montana supreme court’s decision last February declaring that state’s finance system unconstitutional.

In New Jersey, the state supreme court has agreed to consider claims by a group of property-poor districts that the finance system violates the state constitution’s mandate for a “thorough and efficient” system.

Margaret Goertz, director of education-policy research for the Edu2p4cational Testing Service and an expert witness for the plaintiffs, said the suit, Abbott v. Burke, was filed in part because the supreme court had failed to define the term “efficient” in a 1973 finance case.

Arthur E. Wise, the education researcher who in 1969 advanced the idea of turning to the courts to force an equitable distribution of state aid, cautioned, however, that the impact of the Kentucky ruling even on Kentucky itself is uncertain.

“You don’t know how sweeping [decisions] are until they are implemented,” said Mr. Wise, director of the rand Corporation’s Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession.

While the Washington case brought about major changes in the finance and education systems there, he noted, change in West Virginia has progressed more slowly.

The Kentucky decision “invites two kinds of sweeping changes,” according to Mr. Wise.

The first involves finance issues in a state that has relied heavily on local property taxes to fund education.

The second is how the legislature and education department react to the court’s “invitation” to become more involved in the oversight of school districts.

“Frankly, that’s a mixed blessing,” he said. “On one hand, I’m sure Kentucky school districts could benefit from outside influences. On the other hand, you can get a quantum increase in state micromanagement of local school affairs and that’s generally been found to be counterproductive.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1989 edition of Education Week as Ruling Called Step Toward Union of Reform, Equity Issues