Wisconsin Supreme Court Declines PleaTo Declare Aid System Unconstitutional
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the state's school-finance system, ruling that resolving inequities among districts is the responsibility of the legislature and not the courts.
In a 4-to-3 decision, the court rejected arguments made on behalf of Milwakuee students that the aid formula should take into account the special needs of districts that enroll a high percentage of at-risk children.
Herbert Grover, the state school superintendent and chief defendant in the lawsuit, said he wished the Feb. 22 ruling had gone the other way. The state, he said, is "taking from the poor and giving to the wealthy school systems."
Wisconsin's constitution requires the legislature to establish school districts that "shall be as nearly uniform as practicable." Lawyers for the children who filed the 10-year-old suit, Kukor v. Grover, contended that the finance method violated that provision as well as the constitution's equal-protection clause.
The court ruled that "while greater uniformity in educational opportunities is, in the opinion of both parties, desirable and necessary, it is not something which is constitutionally mandated."
Writing for the majority, Justice Louis J. Ceci noted that the plaintiffs were not contesting the adequacy of the "basic education" that they and other urban students receive. Rather, he said, they sought programs for their special needs.
"Such demands," Justice Ceci held, "cannot be remedied by claims of constitutional discrepancies, but rather must be made to the legislature, and perhaps, also to the community."
In a dissenting opinion, Justice William A. Bablitch contended that the majority had missed the main point of the suit.
"The primary issue is whether the state, through its system of school financing, has met its constitutional obligation to provide an equal opportunity for education to all children of this state, rich and poor alike," he said. "As the record amply demonstrates, it has not."
He wrote that the formula was "fundamentally flawed" because it allocated dollars without regard to educational need.
Robert S. Peterkin, superintendent of the Milwaukee district, said the system would lobby the legislature to make changes in the funding formula to address the needs of urban districts.
But he noted that new state funding will be difficult to come by because the legislature is under great political pressure to reduce property taxes.
Wisconsin allocates about $1.4 billion from its general fund for state aid to districts, and additional sums for catagorical programs, transportation, and other items funded outside the formula. The state contributes 46 percent of districts' expenses.
Taxpayer protests over high property taxes have prompted the legislature to consider a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit such taxes as a source of school funding.
Mr. Peterkin, who has held the Milwakuee job for six months, said he was very disappointed by the court's ruling.
"This issue isn't going away," he said. "The needs of children are not going to go away because of this decision."--nm