US Public Schools Scratch For Ways to Save Quality

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PUBLIC school finance is emerging as a hot education issue of the 1990s as more communities take legal action against states for the way they fund schools.Sixteen Massachusetts communities are joining ranks with property-poor communities across the country by challenging a system that funds education through property taxes. Local education officials and parents argue that children of property-poor communities are denied the quality education provided in wealthier, property-rich communities. "Our premise is that it shouldn't depend on whether a child is born in a wealthy community or a poor community as to what kind of basic education he gets," says Judith Murdoch, a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "We believe the state constitution guarantees that each child in the community will receive an equal opportunity for education."

Massachusetts case refiled The Bay State lawsuit, originally filed in 1978, was delayed with the passage of school finance reform legislation in 1985. But those funds were cut, and the case was refiled in 1990. The state Supreme Judicial Court will ultimately decide whether the inequities within certain school districts violate the state constitution. Boston attorney Michael Weisman, who represents the plaintiffs, says it is unclear how soon the court will rule on the case. Education activists cite wide disparities among schools in states that fund their schools primarily through property taxes. Property-poor communities in Massachusetts, for example, can't afford the computers, art and music programs, or quality teachers of their richer neighbors. With recent budget cuts due to declining revenues during a regional recession, Massachusetts communities have been forced to rely more and more on property taxes. In fiscal year 1991, the state provided an average of 37 percent of education funding, the federal government 5 percent, and local communities 58 percent. Rockland, Mass., one of the communities named in the suit, has been hit particularly hard in recent years. "We've cut about 25 percent from our school budget," says Rockland school superintendent Ronald Gerhart. "We've cut 25 percent of our teachers, and we've increased our class size by 25 percent." Many other states have had to wrestle with the issue. In recent years, the public school finance systems in Texas, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Montana have been ruled unconstitutional. Currently, nearly half of the states are being challenged over inequities in their public education systems. Some suits have had a more permanent impact than others. The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that the entire state education system - including finance - was unconstitutional. That decision led to a total revamping of the school system, with a new emphasis on decentralization and community participation.

Rebuilding demanded The court ordered the legislature to rebuild the education system completely, "from ground zero," says Mary Fulton, a research associate for the Education Commission of the States. "They developed an education system like no other in the country. Kentucky is being held up as a model." But in some states, remedies spark as much controversy as the original lawsuits. The Texas Legislature, for example, created new education districts for taxing purposes after its public finance system was ruled unconstitutional in 1989. Under the plan, tax money from the districts will be pooled for use in all schools within each district. But wealthy communities, whose residents must pay higher taxes, are challenging the new plan in court. "We have a whole host of states involved in [the issue of public education finance]," says Ms. Fulton. "In some of the states where we've seen the decisions come down by the [state] Supreme Court.... It's being revisited; it's not a dying issue." The whole issue of school finance has been fueled by a combination of factors, say education experts. In some communities, demographic changes have made school finance systems obsolete. The education reform movement of the 1980s also played a role, according to Fulton. People now are asking how they can sustain reform efforts or make them statewide instead of just pilot projects, Fulton says. In school finance suits, property-poor communities generally argue that the state constitution guarantees an equal education to all students. But constitutional language varies with each state and the disparities in education quality also vary, says Bob Blumenthal, counsel to the Massachusetts Department of Education. Mr. Blumenthal acknowledges disparities in the Massachusetts school system and says the state is working to restore more grant money to poorer communities. But he argues that the state's education system, despite its inequities, is not unconstitutional. "The constitution has very general language ... that basically was taken from colonial days and does not put a specific mandate on the commonwealth as to what it provides," he says. "For the general charge of the schools to remain at the local level is consistent with the constitution."

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