Law & Courts

Court Overturns Montana Funding System

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 16, 2004 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

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

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Challenging the Stigma: Emotions and STEM
STEM isn't just equations and logic. Join this webinar and discover how emotions fuel innovation, creativity, & problem-solving in STEM!
Content provided by Project Lead The Way

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Supreme Court Declines Case on Selective High School Aiming to Boost Racial Diversity
Some advocates saw the K-12 case as the logical next step after last year's decision against affirmative action in college admissions
7 min read
Rising seniors at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology gather on the campus in Alexandria, Va., Aug. 10, 2020. From left in front are, Dinan Elsyad, Sean Nguyen, and Tiffany Ji. From left at rear are Jordan Lee and Shibli Nomani. A federal appeals court’s ruling in May 2023 about the admissions policy at the elite public high school in Virginia may provide a vehicle for the U.S. Supreme Court to flesh out the intended scope of its ruling Thursday, June 29, 2023, banning affirmative action in college admissions.
A group of rising seniors at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology gather on the campus in Alexandria, Va., in August 2020. From left in front are, Dinan Elsyad, Sean Nguyen, and Tiffany Ji. From left at rear are Jordan Lee and Shibli Nomani. The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 20 declined to hear a challenge to an admissions plan for the selective high school that was facially race neutral but designed to boost the enrollment of Black and Hispanic students.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Law & Courts School District Lawsuits Against Social Media Companies Are Piling Up
More than 200 school districts are now suing the major social media companies over the youth mental health crisis.
7 min read
A close up of a statue of the blindfolded lady justice against a light blue background with a ghosted image of a hands holding a cellphone with Facebook "Like" and "Love" icons hovering above it.
iStock/Getty
Law & Courts In 1974, the Supreme Court Recognized English Learners' Rights. The Story Behind That Case
The Lau v. Nichols ruling said students have a right to a "meaningful opportunity" to participate in school, but its legacy is complex.
12 min read
Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William O. Douglas is shown in an undated photo.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, shown in an undated photo, wrote the opinion in <i>Lau</i> v. <i>Nichols</i>, the 1974 decision holding that the San Francisco school system had denied Chinese-speaking schoolchildren a meaningful opportunity to participate in their education.
AP
Law & Courts Supreme Court Declines to Hear School District's Transgender Restroom Case
The case asked whether federal law protects transgender students on the use of school facilities that correspond to their gender identity.
4 min read
People stand on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
People stand on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP