District Coalition Challenges Wis. School-Funding System

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About 100 Wisconsin school districts filed a lawsuit last week challenging the state's school-finance system and arguing that recent changes in state law will only make things worse.

The Association for Equity in Funding, a group that has monitored disparities between the state's wealthy and poor school districts over the past four years, filed its constitutional challenge in Dane County Circuit Court in Madison.

The suit argues that the state constitution's guarantee of an education system "as nearly uniform as is practicable" is not being met.

Local property-tax rates in Wisconsin, which generate much of the money used to run individual school districts, range from 6 mills to 30 mills.

The state permits per-pupil funding amounts that range from $4,340 to $10,739, according to figures for the 1992-93 school year.

Not Far Enough

Lawmakers have approved a new finance system that will eventually transfer to state control two-thirds of Wisconsin's overall education costs. But while critics agree that it will reduce the inequities somewhat, the group of districts said it filed the lawsuit after deciding the new system will not go far enough.

"They are locking in pretty much what the discrepancies are right now," said William J. Vincent, the superintendent of the 840-student Elk Mound Area district. He is also the chairman of the association that filed the lawsuit.

"We've been pushing legislative proposals for three years running," he said, "but as the proposal has become a reality, it does not address the equity side of things at all."

Aides to Gov. Tommy G. Thompson disagreed, arguing that the new finance law will improve the situation.

But John T. Benson, the state superintendent of public instruction, appeared with the plaintiff superintendents at their press conference earlier this month and said that although he is named as a defendant in the case, he agrees with them.

Legal Challenges

Mr. Benson has been embroiled in a fight over the future of the state education department since Gov. Thompson and other Republican leaders pushed through a plan in the state budget earlier this year that would move the agency under the governor's control.

"This is the third time since this budget was approved that we are being sued by people we agree with," said Steven Dold, an assistant state superintendent. He was referring to earlier suits challenging vouchers for religious schools in Milwaukee and provisions in the budget that would revamp the state education department.

"The current formula is dis-equalizing," Mr. Dold said, "and that was only made worse by this year's major changes."

Vol. 15, Issue 08

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