Wave of Suits Heartens Poor Districts SCHOOL FINANCE

May 24, 1992|By LONNIE HARP

Whether the political landscape bears deep scars, as in Texas and New Jersey, or the beaming optimism, as in Kentucky, poor school districts across the country see brighter horizons in a recent string of lawsuits that have overturned state school-finance systems.

Amid the most favorable legal climate in decades, poor districts and parents in more than half the states are lined up in courts for a chance to challenge the way state leaders manage school funds. Talk of a suit in Maryland heated up this month when Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke said he was considering such a challenge.

The latest lawsuits test vague clauses in state constitutions that hand state lawmakers their most expensive job: paying for public schools. Arguing that states have failed to maintain "efficient," "uniform," and "adequate" schools, crusading educators have compiled an impressive string of victories.

In 1989, supreme courts in Kentucky, Montana and Texas surprised observers by ordering bold new school funding formulas. New Jersey's supreme court continued the trend in 1990. More recently, lower court rulings in Kansas, Minnesota and Tennessee have sided strongly with the challengers.

The recent litigation marks a sharp contrast to an earlier wave of school-finance cases based largely on general constitutional guarantees of equal treatment. Launched more than 20 years ago, those cases proved a hit-or-miss prospect.

Despite a sweeping ruling by the California Supreme Court in 1971 and another soon after in New Jersey, the momentum of the poor districts was set back in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a similar challenge, saying the founding fathers had not intended the federal government to be in the education business. While state legislatures leaped to preventive action early in the 1970's, and the initial victories inspired more lawsuits, state courts were far from eager to order vast changes in the wake of the 1973 high court ruling.

"In the early 1970s, we weren't sure this would catch on in state courts at all," said Kern Alexander, a professor at Virginia Tech University and witness in several school finance cases. He added that many experts felt the Supreme Court loss "might end the whole thing."

Actually, the first wave of cases proved largely ineffective and inconsistent, Washington lawyers William L. Taylor and Dianne M. Piche concluded in a report to the House Education and Labor Committee.

"Meaningful reform," they wrote, "proved elusive. Litigation was long, costly, and not always successful, and legislative reform in the states was also uneven and fraught with political difficulties."

In examining a few of the cases spawned by the early decisions -- wins by school districts in Connecticut and West Virginia and losses in Maryland and New York, the congressional report found that those state courts approached the cases with uneven standards.

"In each case, the state court was confronted with significant fiscal disparities, but the opinions reflect that they each engaged in their own unique legal reasoning, applying different standards, and ultimately drawing different conclusions," Mr. Taylor and Ms. Piche wrote. In Maryland and New York, the courts "stressed the theme of 'local control' over public education, suggesting that any petitions for relief from the demonstrated inequities in the system should be brought to the legislature."

After only a short respite, however, refashioned school finance lawsuits have rebounded and found a suddenly receptive judicial audience.

Observers see several factors combining to create the friendly climate for the crusading school districts.

Reacting to a flood of reports that have focused on the nation's education woes, states have become active in a wide range of school-reform issues. The reforms have turned up the heat on all school districts and provided powerful court ammunition. As states raise school performance goals, some districts argue that disparities in the finance system keep the state's newly-defined standards out of their grasp.

In an article for the Harvard Journal on Legislation, the late Bert T. Combs, a former Kentucky governor and lawyer for the 66 poor school districts that pressed the court challenge, recalled the atmosphere as the lawsuit was contemplated in 1985.

"Kentucky's school system, in addition to being inefficient, was completely inadequate at providing even basic skills to our children," he wrote. "Kentucky's General Assembly had never (at least within the memory of any living person) adequately financed the state's public schools."

In Kentucky and elsewhere, the growing resentment over what educators saw as chronic under-funding of education programs -- particularly in light of the growing consensus for reforms and unfulfilled pledges to do better after earlier finance lawsuits -- pushed district officials to the brink, experts said.

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