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Editorial - It's the court's call now

March 02, 1998

Editorial - It's the court's call now

Sixteen years after a judge ruled that rural students were being short-changed by West Virginia's system of funding public schools, legislators' foot-dragging on a plan to equalize spending across the state may force a judge to appoint someone to do the job for them. If that happens, lawmakers will only have themselves to blame for getting hung up on side issues unrelated to the judge's original order.

Issued in 1982, the order ruled it was unconstitutional to fund school systems by relying mainly on each county's property taxes.

Dan Hedges, the attorney who filed the original suit, went back to court in frustration last year after the legislature had spent more than a decade dithering about the issue. The judge gave lawmakers until the end of the 1998 session - March 14 - to make some progress. A hearing will be held March 16 to see how far they've gotten.

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One proposal will probably please the judge - a measure to increase transportation funding to sparsely populated rural counties where some children ride the school bus an hour or more each day. If less local money goes to transportation, the thinking goes, the more can be spent in the classroom.

Another proposal, however, may not win judicial approval. It would create an Office of Education Performance Audits to evaluate which systems are meeting state performance standards. State Sen. Lloyd Jackson, D-Lincoln, says this will allow the state to target funds to those systems in need of more help, instead of just giving more money to all schools, regardless of need.

What Jackson's plan won't change is the state's school-aid formula, which distributes cash based on the number of students in each county system, even if, as is the case in rural counties, per-pupil teaching costs are higher.

So what's to be done? That's probably up to the judge now. The state's best hope is that he'll appoint someone to design a system the legislature could implement in the 1999 session.

The worst possibility? Appointment of a school-spending czar who would answer only to the court. We await the March 16 hearing with great interest.

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