'A View From the Bench': Frank Talk on School Finance

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No one passed a peace pipe, but judges and lawmakers last month set aside their traditional enmity on school-finance issues for a few hours of frank talk here at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The session was billed as "A View From the Bench," and the judges on hand did almost all of the talking. The state legislators who packed the room asked a few questions, but mostly they searched the judges' comments for clues about how they can prevent courts from delving into school funding. Last year alone, school-finance systems in six states were ruled unconstitutional.

N.C.S.L. staff members invited a number of judges, but most chose not to stray from the bench, citing pending school-finance suits and the need to maintain judicial silence.

The judges who agreed to scale the wall that separates the legislative and judicial branches were Terry L. Bullock, a Kansas district judge who almost single-handedly forced state leaders to overhaul school funding in 1992, and Gerald VandeWalle, the chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court, which ruled that state's system constitutional last year.

Having traded their judicial robes for dark suits, both men gave lawmakers the inside skinny on what makes for a successful legal challenge to a school-funding system--at least in their states.

A lawsuit that includes schoolchildren among the plaintiffs is almost a prerequisite in his court, Judge Bullock said. He would not have moved nearly so forcefully if the suit that reached his court in Kansas had been filed solely by taxpayers or school districts.

"I know of a case in Nebraska brought by a taxpayer who said he was taxed too much," he said. "Well, la-di-da."

Shown that there was a 400 percent difference in per-pupil spending between the state's top- and lowest-spending districts, Judge Bullock in 1991 convinced state leaders that it was not only in the children's best interests to revamp the state's funding scheme without going to trial, it also was in the leaders' best interests.

Bringing together then-Gov. Joan Finney, legislative leaders, and the state board of education, he told them horror stories of school-finance suits that dragged on for years and even decades.

He then pointed out that every seat in the legislature was up in the next fall's elections. A ruling that the school-funding system was unconstitutional might lead to a special legislative session that would undoubtedly cut into the campaign season and produce protests that would hurt everyone's re-election chances.

"I had this vision of the little children and their mothers walking around the Capitol with signs saying, 'Please open our schools,"' he said.

Within nine months of that meeting, lawmakers had come to agreement on a radical new funding system that included a uniform statewide property tax.

In North Dakota, meanwhile, a finance suit brought solely on issues of equity does not have much chance, Chief Justice VandeWalle warned.

In his court's 1994 decision, he noted that most of the state's so-called "rich" districts were also the state's smallest. Any equalization plan that included reducing the funding of such districts would cripple them, he told lawmakers at the conference. "It was hard for these districts that were just scraping by with the minimum curriculum to be considered 'rich' districts," he said.

The legislative debate on school choice and vouchers that enmeshed many states this year carried over to the meetings here, with researchers providing new data for lawmakers to chew on--and disagree about.

Harvard University researchers released findings from studies of Milwaukee's private-school-choice initiative, the public-school-choice program in San Antonio, and magnet schools in Montgomery County, Md.

The researchers concluded that the virtues of these programs have been hyped by supporters. Only students in San Antonio's choice program posted learning gains, and those gains were due more to the strong education background of their parents than the choice afforded students.

The researchers also said that school choice can increase racial segregation. Citing Montgomery County's magnet schools, they said many parents choose schools based on racial composition and cultural similarity.

As news of the Harvard report spread among lawmakers, Howard L. Fuller, the former schools superintendent in this city, released research that offered a more positive assessment of choice. Research he did with Sammis B. White, a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, concluded that the city's voucher program benefits children in the city's most concentrated areas of poverty and racial segregation. Their study is the first to include all children eligible for the city's voucher experiment, which the Wisconsin legislature recently voted to expand. (See Education Week, 7/12/95.)

Forty-three percent of eligible students come from families receiving some public assistance, compared with 15 percent citywide, according to the research. In low-income neighborhoods with the most students eligible for choice, 7 percent of children attend private schools, compared with 30 percent of all city schoolchildren.

--Drew Lindsay

Vol. 14, Issue 41

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