Updating '82 Ruling, Judge Orders W.Va. Funding Plan

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In a case of school finance deja vu, a special judge in West Virginia has updated a monumental 1982 state court ruling on educational equity and given the legislature a year to draft a plan to equalize funding between poor and wealthy county school districts.

In an April 3 decision, retired Cabell County Circuit Judge Dan Robinson, who was appointed by the state supreme court to review the state's school finance system, echoed the ruling 15 years ago that found that the system violated the state constitution's requirement for a "thorough and efficient system of free schools."

Today, about 40 of the state's 55 counties raise property-tax revenue above the state's mandated level, subsidizing school salaries, programs, and facilities. But property-poor counties cannot generate those extra funds, causing the financial disparities between rich and poor counties to persist.

"Because education is a fundamental, constitutional right in this state ... any discriminatory classification found in the state's educational financing system cannot stand unless the state can demonstrate some compelling state interest to justify the unequal classification," Judge Robinson wrote in his order. "I find ... the defendants and the state could not ... justify the lack of uniformity in the state's educational financing system."

'Thorough and Efficient'

Janet Pauley, a mother of five in property-poor Lincoln County, set off the chain of events that led to this month's ruling when she sued the state in 1975. In a tactic that would become common in subsequent school finance lawsuits, she charged that West Virginia's property-reliant finance formula discriminated against poor counties.

Judge Robinson worked on his decision for nearly two years before agreeing with Judge Arthur M. Recht's determination in the landmark case of Pauley v. Bailey that the finance system violated the equal protection and education clauses of the West Virginia Constitution. A county circuit court had cleared the way in late 1994 for reopening the case. ("W.Va. Court Reopens Landmark Finance Case," Feb. 1, 1995.)

Judge Recht's 244-page opinion had called on the legislature to "completely reconstruct the entire system of education." His far-reaching plan detailed the components of a "thorough and efficient" education down to the square footage of classroom space needed for each student.

Within fiscal reason, observers in the state say, the decision prompted leaders to overhaul West Virginia's public schools, but the property-tax-reliant funding structure persists, leaving major equity disputes unaddressed.

In the new ruling, Judge Robinson gives state leaders credit for their work to improve schools since 1982. "The legislature has enacted many programs and statutes pertaining to education," budgeting more education funds to build schools, increase educators' salaries, and implement technology, he wrote.

But those changes have not gone far enough, he stated.

Judge Robinson gave legislators a year to draft a plan to comply with Judge Recht's 1982 order or to come up with a comparable plan of their own.

If no plan is in the works by March 16, 1998, the judge wrote, he will hold a special hearing to consider appointing a special master or commissioner to oversee the implementation of Judge Recht's plan.

Hope and Caution

Lawmakers and educators reacted to the order with cautious optimism.

The plan presents "a golden opportunity to take all we've done to transform education in the state and build it into a system we can take into the 21st century," said state schools Superintendent Henry R. Marockie. "I'm convinced we can make this work."

Delegate Larry A. Williams, the chairman of the House education finance and policy subcommittee, offered a somewhat more tempered perspective. In an era of "no new taxes," restructuring the school finance formula will be one of the most difficult tasks the legislature has taken on, Mr. Williams said.

"This is going to be a major undertaking," he said. "But at this point, we're seeing the judge's order as a way to hasten what we've been trying to achieve for years ... however difficult."

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