A Prod to Schools

NEW JERSEY last week joined the string of states under court order to revise the way they pay for education. As in Montana, Kentucky, and Texas, New Jersey's high court found that the wide gap in school quality between poor districts and wealthy ones violated constitutional guarantees of equal treatment for all citizens. Rulings in these four states have come rapid-fire within the last 18 months. Courts have also rejected property tax-based education financing systems in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming. And suits have recently been filed in 12 other states.

State judges are leaping in where the federal judiciary chose not to tread. In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that the equal protection clause of the US Constitution does not demand a restructuring of inequitable school financing. The issue couldn't rest there, however. Disturbing social and economic results from disparities in educational spending were all too evident. Writing for the majority on his bench, Kentucky Chief Justice Robert Stephens noted that the performance of students in his state ``is fraught with inequalities and inequities throughout the 178 local school districts.''

Kentucky's remedy includes wholesale change in the ways schools are managed. Local districts and individual schools will next year be given much broader control over curricula and instruction. State funding will be used to prod schools toward general educational goals.

Other states have taken a less sweeping approach, concentrating instead on new ways of raising revenue and new formulas for allocating state monies.

New Jersey's ruling is notable for its emphasis on the problems of inner-city education. The suit there was brought in the name of 20 children from communities like Jersey City, and the remedy includes a requirement that state funds be used to bring per-pupil spending in poorer, usually urban districts level with spending in wealthy areas.

These rulings don't in themselves mean better education. But a more equal distribution of educational dollars can set the stage for significant reform. Tough decisions lie ahead, concerning the best ways of turning added money into sound learning. Plans based on ``choice,'' described elsewhere on this page, are one approach that's taking hold.

School reform is a long process, subject to lots of inertia. It's good that the courts are giving it a prod.

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