No Clear Trend Seen in Recent Finance Decisions

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Although upcoming courtroom developments in several big states may yet make clear a trend in school-finance litigation, decisions in several smaller states within the past year have made discerning any national direction little more than a guessing game.

The Virginia Supreme Court last month turned back a lawsuit by poor school districts, ruling unanimously that the matter is one for legislative, rather than judicial, action.

The ruling further blurred a picture that had appeared to be gaining some focus in recent years, as state judges with increasing frequency have overturned school-finance systems in which vast per-pupil spending disparities were allowed between wealthy and poor districts.

But this year's judicial actions have shown that no national movement is afoot, except perhaps that more attention is being brought to bear on the issue of how states fund schools.

In the past few months, lawsuits have been turned aside by supreme courts in Nebraska, North Dakota, and Virginia.

The supreme court in New Hampshire, on the other hand, surprised observers by striking down that state's school-finance system, which relies more heavily on local funding than any other state. And a superior-court judge in Rhode Island ordered massive funding reforms.

A district judge in Wyoming, meanwhile, satisfied virtually no one in the state late last year when he ruled in favor of the main school-funding formula but struck down three ancillary funding programs.

"The decisions are still very divided,'' noted G. Alan Hickrod, the director of the Center for the Study of Educational Finance at Illinois State University, which tracks the litigation. "It is making the lawyers tear their hair out because they are looking for some kind of trend.''

'In There Forever'

Observers are now turning their attention to some of the states that began the recent litigation trend. Lawyers in New Jersey and Texas are preparing this month to go back before their states' supreme courts to focus on school-finance laws passed by the legislatures in response to earlier court decisions.

Oral arguments are scheduled to begin this week in New Jersey, while the Texas Supreme Court will begin hearing the latest challenge May 25.

In Ohio, a verdict is expected this summer from the Perry County Common Pleas Court, where most of the state's districts are challenging the fairness of the current system. The plaintiffs are also taking direct aim at an earlier decision that, like the recent Virginia ruling, took the school-spending issue out of the domain of the courts.

Observers are also watching New York State and Illinois, where motions to dismiss poor districts' lawsuits--similar to the move that led to the Virginia ruling--are before the states' high courts.

The impending court actions in Texas and New Jersey also provide a vivid illustration of what may be the only clear result of the finance cases that have made their way to the front lines of the school-reform debate in recent years: Reaching a resolution that is fair, sufficiently funded, and politically palatable seems out of reach for nearly every state.

"We used to think that we could get this done over a shorter term than New Jersey or California,'' said Craig Foster, the executive director of the Equity Center, a coalition of Texas districts that has challenged the finance system. "Now, it seems like we may be in there forever, too.''

Kentucky's Decisive Handling

After landmark court decisions in the 1970's, the school-finance issue has waxed and waned in New Jersey and California, but never reached a final resolution.

Indeed, only Kentucky appears to have decisively handled the finance issue. After the state supreme court in 1989 not only struck down the finance system but erased the state's entire education program, lawmakers responded by passing a comprehensive restructuring of the schools.

Although the law's school-reform provisions have since provoked substantial controversy in the state, its finance-equity provisions have helped close the gap between wealthy and poor districts with little opposition.

Elsewhere, however, court-ordered finance changes have proven a frustrating challenge to lawmakers and offered little solace to poor districts that brought the cases.

School-finance activists in Alabama, for example, won a decisive lower-court victory and eventually obtained agreement from state officials that substantial change was needed. But they have watched as gridlock and political maneuvering have overshadowed the issue in the legislature. (See story, this page.)

For coverage of individual state cases, see the following issues of Education Week: Nebraska, Sept. 29, 1993; New Hampshire, Jan. 12, 1994; New Jersey, Sept. 8, 1993; North Dakota, Feb. 9, 1994; Ohio, Nov. 3, 1994; Rhode Island, March 9, 1994; Texas, Jan. 12, 1994; Virginia, April 27, 1994; Wyoming, Dec. 8, 1993.

Vol. 13, Issue 32

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