Judge in Kentucky Orders School-Aid Overhaul

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Raising taxes is the only "viable alternative" available to Kentucky lawmakers if they are to fulfill their constitutional obligation to provide "efficient" public schools, a state judge has ruled.

"It is apparent that substantial additional monies will have to be allocated to education in order to establish an adequate statewide system of common schools," Judge Ray Corns of the Franklin Circuit Court wrote in his Oct. 14 final order in a three-year-old school-finance case.

"Questions about school finances have not been faced squarely for many years," he continued. "Failure to appreciate the value of education in this state is historical and it cannot continue to be countenanced."

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."

"The court does not intend by this decision to provoke a confrontation with the General Assembly," he wrote. The judge asked legislators to abide by their oaths "registered in heaven" to fund schools adequately, even if that task is "unpleasant or politically difficult."

Judge Corns's order requires lawmakers and other state officials named as defendants in the case to meet with him Feb. 1 to discuss what they have done to comply with his ruling and what other steps they plan to take.

Plaintiffs Pleased

The judge's decision followed by four and a half months his preliminary ruling that the current school-aid system was unconstitutional.

Debra Dawahare, a lawyer for the 66 school districts that filed the class action in 1985, said she was "especially pleased that Judge Corns stayed within the bounds of judiciary purview" in his ruling this month.

A decision ordering the legislature to take specific remedial actions, she said, would have "created an obstacle to addressing the case on its merits" when it is appealed. William Scent, a lawyer representing legislative leaders named in the suit, has said that he will ask the state supreme court to bypass normal appellate procedure and hear the case directly.

Judge Corns's ruling was also praised by State Superintendent of Education John Brock, who was among the original plaintiffs in the suit but became a defendant after his election to the state chief's post.

"I think the ruling is specific8enough in its findings and conclusions to mandate some type of action," he said, "and broad enough to give the executive and the legislative branches wide latitude to consider whatever steps are necessary to correct the system."

"If the governor and the legislature are responsive," added Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' group that filed a brief on behalf of the plaintiffs, "the ruling can be looked back upon as a turning point for Kentucky education."

Judge's Findings

Judge Corns rejected as "illusory" the state's claim that it is spending an adequate amount on education by comparison with surrounding states.

He also said that a 1976 law that transferred some locally collected school revenues to the state for redistribution to poorer districts did not provide more money for schools, but merely reshuffled existing resources.

"The real issue is the amount of dollars available to the school districts, and not whether the funds flow from taxes collected at the state or local level," he said.

The judge also noted that a 1965 "tax-rollback law" had contributed to the underfinancing of districts. While the law "is not unconstitutional per se," he said, it "flies in the face of all logic, tax-equity considerations, and revenue-raising potential."

He rejected the state's claim that waste and mismanagement had contributed substantially to the plaintiff districts' financial problems.

The judge noted that under the state constitution's requirement for an "efficient system of common schools," a free, adequate education must be provided to all Kentucky children without regard to their location or the fiscal resources available locally. He added, however, that school districts should be encouraged to strive for excellence once they have attained adequacy.

Judge Corns ruled out a wholesale redistribution of existing funds from richer to poorer school districts, saying such a move would "have the effect of creating uniform mediocrity."

He rejected school-district consolidation as a remedy, and also argued that "one need not be a mathematical genius to conclude" that it would be impossible to take funds from some state agencies to bolster school support "without crippling other vital functions of state government."

The judge said that although the legislature bears primary responsibility for correcting the problem, the governor also has a constitutional duty to offer lawmakers alternatives.

Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson declined comment last week.

Vol. 08, Issue 08

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