W.Va. Finance Lawsuit Moving To Resolution After Decades in Court

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West Virginia's 25-year-old school funding lawsuit has moved closer to resolution, with the parties agreeing to tweak a system that has come a long way—but perhaps not far enough—toward setting the bar for a constitutionally adequate education.

Under a court-ordered agreement reached last month, the state must evaluate and report on individual schools' specific needs, including facilities, personnel, curriculum, equipment, and materials.

Such resources have been at the heart of the suit since it was brought against the governor and other state officials by several parents of Lincoln County public school students in 1975, and state Circuit Judge Arthur M. Recht ruled in their favor seven years later. The parents charged that their children were receiving an inferior and inadequate education because of the condition of the county's schools.

Another central issue in the case has been state's method of paying for schools, but the new agreement does not resolve those funding issues.

The agreement follows a national trend in school finance law toward giving primary consideration to whether school districts do enough to help children meet academic standards, rather than whether the districts in a given state are funded equally.

Daniel F. Hedges, the lawyer who has represented the plaintiffs since 1975, said the agreement was an important step toward making schools better.

"I think it will bring about a monumental change in the evaluation of resources, which has not been done in a meaningful way in the last 10 years," Mr. Hedges said.

Audits Remain Key

But state education officials foresee little change in their current method of guaranteeing an adequate education, which focuses on audits of district performance.

Under that system, state officials may decide to spend money on additional resources if they are needed to help children learn more and the money cannot be found by improving the management of the district.

"The order is going to put a little more emphasis on resources," acknowledged William J. Luff, the associate state superintendent of education.

But as for the overall questions of what resources students need for learning, Mr. Luff continued, "the court said that's going to be judged in the future by current policies," as well as the 1998 law that established a state office of school performance audits. That office is charged with the evaluation and accreditation of schools, and can recommend a state takeover of a district on the basis of poor student performance or mismanagement. Such a takeover occurred in Lincoln County last spring.

One effect of the Aug. 1 order was to void the detailed master plan for schools that Judge Recht approved in 1983 as part of his decision in the original case. Mr. Hedges reopened the case in 1995, claiming that the state had not followed the plan, even though much of it had been incorporated into state policy.

The plaintiffs had asked the court to appoint a special commissioner to oversee the implementation of court-ordered changes to the system, a request they withdrew as part of the recent agreement.

The agreement also calls for establishing committees to advise the state board of education on tests and testing procedures; a remedy for teacher shortages; improving vocational offerings; and strategies for addressing inadequacy in science facilities and equipment in secondary schools.

Advisory-committee members will include representatives of the plaintiff schoolchildren, the state school board, the legislature, and the West Virginia Education Association—the state's largest teachers' union and an affiliate of National Education Association—which joined the suit in 1998.

Judge Recht is expected to decide on the funding issues—including the legality of additional property taxes levied by some counties for their schools—later this month, if the state and the plaintiffs have not reached a second agreement.

Vol. 20, Issue 1, Page 37

Published in Print: September 6, 2000, as W.Va. Finance Lawsuit Moving To Resolution After Decades in Court
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