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Editorial - School draft disappoints

December 11, 1997

West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood's Commission on Educational Quality and Equity has delivered a draft of its recommendations, and while the final report may be more enlightening, the first version doesn't address the key funding problem - taxpayers' unwillingness to okay a statewide excess property-tax levy.

Voters rejected that approach to solving the school-funding equity problem in 1984 and 1988, but the commission put that at the top of its list. How will state officials persuade voters to approve it now? The report doesn't say, which opens the door to a dangerous possibility: judicial control of the school system.

Cabell County Judge Dan Robinson threatened as much this past spring, ruling that a 1982 order to equalize school funding had never been carried out. Implement it within a year, the judge said, or I'll appoint a commissioner to do it.

In reaction to that threat, Underwood named his commission. Unfortunately, in our view, the panel's failure to concentrate on the central question dilutes the effect of its work.

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To implement Judge Robinson's order, West Virginia needs to devise a way to set a standard figure for per-pupil expenditures each year, and a formula for state aid to those jurisdictions which can't afford it on their own. If the per-pupil expenditure figure is set at $3,500 and County A can only fund $3,200 of that, cash will have to be found elsewhere to make up the difference.

The commission did make a number of recommendations that would allow school systems to save money. They include two good ideas - using college students or Americorps volunteers to teach summer school and doing bulk buying and bus repair regionally - and one clinker, making class size caps more flexible.

As we've said previously, we fear that unless the commission's final report contains more solutions than its draft, West Virginia might soon see its education system run by a court-appointed commissioner instead of democratically elected school boards.

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