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herald - editorial - 12/26/01

December 27, 2001

Judge's ruling may affect school funding



How much money is enough, in a state where funds are always in short supply? Unless West Virginia lawmakers answer that question to the satisfaction of an Ohio County judge, they may find the court dictating their education spending plans.

It's not as if they haven't had time to work things out. Judge Arthur Recht ruled in 1982 that the state's method of funding public education was unconstitutional because it relied too much on local property taxes. That gives wealthier counties an unfair edge, said the judge, who also mandated a master plan for change.

Two decades later, the judge - and the West Virginia Education Association - aren't convinced the state has done enough. A court hearing to review the latest developments is set for April 19, after the session ends.

At that hearing, lawmakers will cite last month's report, which noted improved test scores, higher grade point averages and many school building improvements. The legislature, which now devotes more than half its general fund budget to education, has also enacted new standards that reward local systems for improved performance.

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If the judge says that's not sufficient, there are several possibilities. The first is a revamping of the state education-funding formula to offset the effect of wealthier counties' higher property-tax collections. Given the lack of progress made in 20 years on this issue, the prospect of crafting a new formula in a single session is unlikely.

The second would be a judicial mandate on education funding, which lawmakers would no doubt appeal to the state Supreme Court, at additional cost to taxpayers.

The third and most realistic plan is for lawmakers to make their best effort to make progress on Judge Recht's priorities during the session, then convince him during the April 19 hearing that what they've done is not an attempt to pacify him, but a sincere effort to deal with the inequities faced by rich and poor school systems.

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