Wis. Supreme Court Upholds School Finance System

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Many in Wisconsin's education community will be spending the remaining weeks of summer redoubling their efforts to persuade lawmakers to overhaul the state's method of financing schools, following a long-awaited state supreme court decision that upheld the system as constitutional.

The justices ruled 4-3 last month to keep the finance system intact and, for the first time, defined the state's responsibility in educating children. The 5- year-old Vincent v. Voight lawsuit had challenged both the funding disparities between rich and poor communities and the property-tax caps imposed on the state's 426 school districts in the early 1990s. ("As Wis. Finance Ruling Nears, Protesters Set To Rally," June 21, 2000. )

"So long as the legislature is providing sufficient resources so that school districts offer students the equal opportunity for a sound basic education as required by the constitution, the state school finance system will pass constitutional muster," wrote Justice Patrick J. Crooks in the July 11 ruling.

The decision defined a "sound basic education" as "the opportunity for students to be proficient in mathematics, science, reading and writing, geography, and history, and for them to receive instruction in the arts and music, vocational training, social studies, health, physical education, and foreign language, in accordance with their age and aptitude."

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit said they were discouraged by the outcome but were pleased that the court had chosen to outline the state's responsibilities. The ruling means that the legislature must abide by specific standards, said Terry Craney, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state affiliate of the National Education Association and among the plaintiffs in the case.

"We're disappointed," Mr. Craney said. "On the other hand, this looks to be one of the stronger standards set by any state."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they were not planning further legal action at present, but could do so in the future if the state failed to comply with the ruling. The list of plaintiffs included 104 districts, as well as school administrators, teachers, parents, and taxpayers.

Debate Will Continue

Activists, district administrators, and education associations, meanwhile, are planning to bombard legislators with information on the issue this fall, said Teri Hanson, a co- organizer of a rally in June that drew thousands to the state Capitol to oppose the current system of school finance. Those groups are forming a coalition and planning a series of hearings around the state in October in the hope of eliciting testimony from local districts.

"We hope to show people in Madison that the discrepancies are real and that the system is not working," Ms. Hanson said.

Ms. Hanson is one of many critics who say that problems originated in 1993, when the legislature agreed to reduce local property taxes by shifting more of the burden of financing districts to the state.

Under the law, the state began paying two-thirds of K-12 costs—an increase from 42 percent—and imposed spending caps tied to 1992-93 budget levels to ensure the state could cover future expenses. Districts may increase their budgets by 3.5 percent annually to provide for inflation, but must limit increases in teacher salaries and benefits to 3.8 percent annually.

Districts that want to raise spending beyond those limits must ask voters directly through local referendums. The state is obligated to pay two-thirds of any increases that voters approve.

The lawsuit contended that such a system causes problems because it caps spending even in districts affected by declining enrollments or increasing populations of students with special needs. It is also unfair to those districts that must provide expensive remedial aid to students who fail the state's mandatory tests in grades 5 and 8, the plaintiffs claimed.

Furthermore, the plaintiffs argued that the funding system does not meet the constitution's requirement that the state provide an educational system that is "nearly as uniform as practicable." Children living in poor communities that raise less revenue from property taxes do not receive the same education as do children who hail from wealthier communities, the suit said, and state funding designed to ease those inequities is inadequate.

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson disputes such criticisms.

The supreme court's decision "confirms that the state's school funding formula is fair and equitable," the Republican governor said in a statement.

Nevertheless, Kevin Keane, a spokesman for the governor, said Mr. Thompson is open to changing the formula, and will be guided by the recommendations of a commission on the relationship between the state and its localities he appointed earlier this year.

"We clearly need to do something, because none of the parties seem to be happy," Mr. Keane said.

Vol. 19, Issue 43, Page 25

Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as Wis. Supreme Court Upholds School Finance System
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