Now that schools in West Virginia are free from two decades of court oversight, state education and legislative leaders must prove they can continue the progress a judge recently commended as he concluded a long-running lawsuit filed by parents almost 30 years ago.
The order from Judge Arthur M. Recht on Jan. 3 to end two decades of court oversight of West Virginia schools concludes a case that began in 1975 when parents of Lincoln County public school students sued the governor and state education officials. They claimed that insufficient funding and a lack of other resources meant the state had failed in its constitutional responsibility to provide them with an adequate education.
Judge Recht, of the Ohio County Circuit Court, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1982 and issued a 244-page blueprint for overhauling West Virginia’s education system, with detailed instructions on everything from setting academic standards to square feet of classroom space per student.
The case was reopened in 1995 when the plaintiffs argued that the master plan laid out by the judge was not being followed. That issue was assigned to a special judge of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, who ruled two years later that the state’s school funding formula was unconstitutional.
But in ending court oversight of West Virginia schools, Judge Recht noted that the earlier ruling came before 1998, when the state legislature created a statewide, performance-based accountability system for schools. The measure introduced educational standards and performance measures, as well as a system for targeting resources to under-performing schools. (“W.Va. Finance Lawsuit Moving to Resolution After Decades in Court,” Sept. 6, 2000.)
The judge said the state’s school funding formula can’t be deemed invalid until it can be evaluated within the context of this new accountability model.
“The legislature has determined, and this court agrees, that a performance-based approach should be given a chance to succeed,” Judge Recht wrote. “This court believes that the legislative and executive branches have every intention of doing what each says they are going to do.”
The judge turned down the plaintiffs’ request to force the legislature to spend more than $43 million to pay for such steps as hiring more teachers. From this point, the judge wrote, “decisions regarding the classroom are out of the courtroom and into the halls and offices of the legislative and executive branches of government.”
Sen. Robert H. Plymale, the Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee, lauded the ruling.
“We were quite pleased that through these many years the judge has recognized we have made progress,” he said. Mr. Plymale believes West Virginia has come a long way since the case began. Most important, he said, educators and lawmakers have begun evaluating educational outcomes more closely. “We have moved from seeing things from an input basis to judging student progress. [The suit] got us to focus on education and judging the progress of students.”
West Virginia’s efforts to improve schools since the case began almost 30 years ago include creating the nation’s first statewide public education fund, developing local school improvement councils, establishing an independent agency to evaluate schools, and inviting an outside group to review its accountability system.
Additionally, the state has moved from 49th nationally in teacher pay in 1990 to 32nd today. In addition, West Virginia now ranks 14th in the nation for per-pupil spending, standing at $8,245 in the 2001-02 school year, a 4 percent increase from the previous year.
The state superintendent of schools in West Virginia, David Stewart, said in a statement that the ruling allows West Virginia to continue building on that progress. “This is an exciting time for students,” he said. “This decision allows us to move forward and continue to improve our educational system.”
Delegate Jerry L. Mezzatesta, the chairman of the House education committee, echoed those thoughts. “This is not an end,” he said. “This is a beginning. We have not been sitting idly by. We recognized a long time ago in West Virginia you can’t do business as usual.”
Bill McGinley, the general counsel for the West Virginia Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association and a plaintiff in the case, said that West Virginia is moving forward on creating a stronger education system.
The union, however, still advocates a more equitable funding system.
“We’re concerned our formula still doesn’t provide for enough professional personnel to provide the type of curriculum we’ve established for our students,” he said.
While the union was disappointed that the judge turned down the request to force the legislature to spend millions to help hire new teachers, Mr. McGinley said he believes West Virginia is on the right path. “We see real opportunities for making progress,” he said.