Bay State Gears Up To Ensure Equity In School Funding

ALONG with a handful of other states, Massachusetts is faced with reforming the way it funds public education.

The mandate was given to lawmakers and the governor last week by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). It ruled that the state has failed to meet its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to all public-school students based on its property-tax-financed system.

In writing the court decision, Chief Justice Paul Liacos states: "What emerges ... is that the commonwealth has a duty to provide an education for all its students, rich and poor, in every city and town of the commonwealth at the public-school level."

In recent years, public-school finance has become a hot issue, as communities take legal action against states for school funding. Systems in Texas, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Montana have been ruled unconstitutional. And in April, a lower-court Alabama judge ruled that the state's public-education system was "inequitable and inadequate," says Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States. Today, 25 states are engaged in school-finance lawsuits, she says.

Plaintiffs say in property-poor communities, students are denied educational resources. But those in property-rich towns enjoy special programs, computers, and textbooks. Many schools are mainly funded by local property taxes, though they also receive state and federal money.

In Massachusetts, attorney Michael Weisman, who represented plaintiffs from 16 communities in the Bay State case, called the decision an "enormous victory" for public-school students. "What the Supreme Judicial Court said ... is that a fundamental premise of a free and democratic society is an educated populace. Therefore, education is not just good policy, it is essential in a free society," he says.

Though no timetable was set, the state court ruled that the legislature and governor must devise a plan to make education more equitable. A state supreme court justice will oversee it.

The decision comes at an opportune time. On June 18, Gov. William Weld (R) signed an education-reform bill that many hope will address concerns cited by the court. With $175 million more in state education allocated for the upcoming year, the law raises spending to a "foundation level" of $5,550 per student by 2000.

It also: develops standards and tests to measure student performance; replaces teacher tenure with an arbitration system; places more responsibility on principals and superintendents for school performance; creates 25 "charter schools" that receive public funds but are run by teachers, parents, or universities; and creates a limited school-choice program, among other things.

But Mr. Weld said the law, which earmarks $1.7 billion in state education funding in seven years, marks the beginning of reform.

"Putting more money into schools does not guarantee a solid education," he said at a press conference. "Parental involvement, innovative schools, and inspiring teachers. These are the dominant factors in what children learn in classrooms."

WELD says the bill does not offer a strong enough school-choice program and that "school districts themselves are not compelled to compete and ... to improve."

Also, he said the new system to replace tenure may make it more difficult to remove underperforming teachers. The governor will introduce legislation soon to address his concerns.

Critics wonder where funding for the new law will come from in a state whose fiscally conservative governor promised to steer clear of new taxes. And while many educators applaud the law, some question whether it will meet the demands of the SJC ruling soon enough.

"The court may look at it and say, `We need to have you do that sooner. We don't think that's enough,' " says state Commissioner of Education Robert Antonucci.

According to Ms. Fulton, states mandated to change public-finance systems do not always factor in quality and equity. Massachusetts' law, she says, includes reforms to produce both. "This presents Massachusetts with a unique opportunity that some of the states haven't dealt with."

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