Monday, April 30, 2001

Adequacy new focus of school-fund fights

By Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As Ohio makes its fourth attempt to revamp the way it funds schools, states around the country are grappling with how to support public education.

        In a push for equity and adequacy in school spending, courts have thrown out funding systems from New Hampshire to Wyoming.

        Most of the lawsuits have centered on closing spending gaps between rich and poor school districts. A growing number of states, including Ohio, are being challenged for not providing enough money to all districts to do their jobs.

        “The issues — equity vs.

        adequacy — are different, and so are the solutions,” said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

        While many states, such as Kentucky, have dealt with the question of how to equalize spending, adequacy challenges are becoming more prevalent, said R. Craig Wood, a research professor with the University of Florida's Center for the Study of Education Finance.

        “It's the argument that regardless of the formula, children in certain areas are not achieving and have not received enough money to bring them up to standards,” Mr. Wood said.

        The Ohio Supreme Court declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional in 1991 after critics said the state was not providing enough money to adequately educate all children.

        Recently Ohio Republican leaders defended their new, $1.4 billion school-funding plan, saying it would bring fairness to the system by eventually giving poorer school districts across the state as much as $800 extra per pupil.

        That money would come on top of an increase in basic aid to all public schools from $4,294 per pupil this year to $4,814 next year.

        Republicans are arguing privately over how to pay for the plan, however.

        In the late 1980s, school fund ing formulas in Kentucky, Arkansas, Montana, New Jersey and Texas were declared unconstitutional because they didn't provide equal resources for schools in poor communities.

        In the mid-'90s, the school funding debate shifted to adequacy, Mr. Wood said, in states like Alabama, Connecticut, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Legal battles over the adequacy of education funding are still brewing in New Hampshire, Wyoming, Florida and New York.

        “Adequacy is still a fairly elusive issue,” Ms. Fulton said. “What is an adequate education? How do you define that, and how do you come up with a funding system to support that definition, and where do you find the money to pay for it?

        “No one has really solved this. They keep going back to the courts.”

        Some states, however, have seen success in equalizing school spending. In a landmark reform act, Kentucky adopted a new funding system in 1990 after the state Supreme Court declared its old methods unconstitutional.

        Districts received the same amount of state dollars, regardless of how much in local property taxes they brought in, creating financial disparities between schools in poor and wealthy areas. The state now gives more state money to districts that generate less local revenue.

        “The difference is amazing. Schools in poor areas of the state can now get computers, textbooks, pencils — basic things schools need that they couldn't before,” said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

        After 12 failed attempts, Michigan legislators adopted a school funding system in 1994 aimed at improving equity. The state reduced schools' reliance on local property taxes by funding districts through statewide sales and property taxes.

        However, both Kentucky's and Michigan's systems have faced criticism that wealthier districts are now suffering as the states give more money to poor schools.

        And in Kentucky, the question of adequacy is now at the forefront of debates as the state begins a review of its 11-year-old system.

               The Ohio Supreme Court — which has twice ruled that the state's school-funding plan is unconstitutional — gave the legislature until June 15 to create a system for bringing poorer districts up to par with richer ones.

        The court has scheduled oral arguments for June 20.

        State officials hope to have a bill containing $1.4 billion for the plan approved by the House and Senate and signed by the governor before the deadline.


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