Law & Courts

Court Overturns Montana Funding System

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 16, 2004 3 min read
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In the legislative session that begins in January, Montana lawmakers will be under the gun to come up with a definition for a “quality” public education, following the Montana Supreme Court’s decision last week to strike down the state’s school funding formula.

While it held that the financing system is fatally flawed, the court said the question of whether Montana schools have enough money can’t be resolved until the system is based on “educationally relevant factors.” For that to happen, the court found, the legislature needs to interpret the meaning of the state constitution’s reference to “a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools.”

In a unanimous decision on Nov. 9, the state’s highest court gave the legislature a deadline of Oct. 1 of next year to come up with a better system. In doing so, it upheld the ruling in April of Helena District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock that state funding for public schools is insufficient. The three-page preliminary order also upheld Judge Sherlock’s finding that the public education system is violating a mandate in the state constitution for schools to teach children about the heritage of American Indians.

Order Is Preliminary

Having rushed to issue a preliminary order on the matter so the legislature could address it in its upcoming session, the high court will issue a full opinion at an unspecified later date. State legislators are set to resume work Jan. 3 for a session expected to last 90 days.

The decision marked the second time the state’s funding formula has been struck down since 1989.

Following the latest ruling, Montanans need to take a much closer look at the needs and true cost of public schooling, said Jack Copps, the executive director of the Helena-based Montana Quality Education Coalition, which filed the current lawsuit in 2002.

“We’ve only speculated in Montana the amount of resources our schools need,” he said. That has led to problems such as a difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers, he said, because Montana’s schools don’t pay enough.

But Brian Morris, the state solicitor who defended Montana in the case, said he was disappointed by the ruling. “We had urged the court to look at output measures, such as graduation rates and what students are learning,” he said.

Montana’s schools measure up well nationally, he said. He noted, for example, that its students perform well above average on standardized tests and that their graduation rates are higher than many other states.

Linda H. McCulloch, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, said she hopes the court decision will result in more money to pay teachers better salaries. Many Montana school districts offer a starting salary of less than $20,000 per year, and about 60 percent don’t provide health insurance for their faculty members, she said.

Spending Rise Foreseen

Both Republicans and Democrats who served on the state Senate’s education committee in the most recent legislative session surmised that revamping the funding system to satisfy the court would mean coming up with more dollars for schools.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that on a given piece of property, the taxes will go up,” said Sen. William E. Glaser, a Republican who chairs the Senate education committee. “We’ve actually done quite well in our economy, when everyone else was struggling.”

“I’d be surprised if everyone isn’t resigned to the fact that we’ll have to put more money into education,” added Sen. Mike Cooney, a Democrat on the same committee. The difficulty of resolving the issue, he said, will be agreeing on what level of funding is appropriate.

Sen. Robert R. Story Jr., a Republican member of the education committee, said the state’s formula for financing public schools is based on the number of pupils in a school, and places caps on what local districts can spend in addition to what they receive from the state.

The system reflects revisions made more than a decade ago in response to a previous ruling by the supreme court, which held that the system wasn’t equitable, he noted. Mr. Story said the existing system worked when student enrollment was growing, but now that it has been declining districts haven’t been able to keep up with their fixed costs.

Montana provided $555 million for K-12 education in fiscal 2004, or 60 percent of the local and state total spent on public schooling.

On the separate issue addressed in the high court’s ruling last week, Joyce Silverthorne, the head of the tribal education department for the Salish/Kootenai tribes of Montana and a former state school board member, said she was pleased that the court affirmed the constitutional mandate that schools teach all Montanans about their state’s 12 Indian tribes.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2004 edition of Education Week as Court Overturns Montana Funding System

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