Not long after President Clinton unveiled his plans to push for greater educational opportunity, Vermont's Supreme Court decided to turn the push into a shove. On Feb. 5 that court followed the lead of high courts in more than a dozen other states and declared the existing school funding system unconstitutional.
The Vermont justices went a little further than most of their black-robed colleagues, however, in ruling that the state had to provide all its students a "substantially equal" opportunity to learn. In other states, decisions typically revolved around the provision of an "adequate" education, skirting the politically dicey question of equality.
What this means in Vermont, or in any other state that has been forced to tackle the matter, is a mega legislative task. Vermont's lawmakers have already spent years trying to retool the state's property tax structure. Now their dithering will have to stop.
In Vermont, as in most parts of the country, property taxes have always generated most school funding. Naturally, wealthy towns do better. In Vermont, per-pupil spending ranges from $2,700 in poorer towns to $7,800 in upscale communities. Narrowing that gap could involve fierce debate over "local control" - particularly if the state tells high-spending towns they have to cut back and spread the wealth around.
The court, however, was unequivocal. Its words bear pondering: "We are simply unable to fathom a legitimate governmental purpose to justify the gross inequities in educational opportunities evident from the record. The distribution of a resource as precious as educational opportunity may not have as its determining force the mere fortuity of a child's residence."
Vermont's not alone. That line of reasoning could resonate far beyond the Green Mountains, perhaps from "sea to shining sea."