Sunday, January 4, 2004

School-funding lawsuits cost taxpayers


It's a shame that school-funding lawsuits have become a cottage industry. A peek at 2004 shows no relief. More lawsuits for more tax money are in the works, starting with Kentucky and spreading nationwide.

For Kentuckians, it's 1980s deję vu. More than a decade after a lawsuit forced massive funding hikes and other changes in Kentucky's public schools, they're headed back to court for more. A coalition of superintendents and school boards is suing the General Assembly to force the state to spend millions more on public schools. The lawsuit is patterned after the 1980s one that resulted in the Kentucky Education Reform Act.

Many Northern Kentucky districts have pledged their share to pay legal fees.

The lawsuit, filed in Franklin Circuit Court, claims the General Assembly has failed to fund schools adequately. They say the percentage of state money allocated to schools has shrunk to 41 percent from 48 percent in 1992. They want the state to spend another $892 million a year on public schools.

Many districts in Northern Kentucky are squeezed by a funding formula that hurts fast- growing districts and those with high local property assessments. Kentucky law currently limits a school district's ability to raise taxes locally to make up for reductions in state funding.

Fixing the formula and budgeting education dollars is the job of legislators, not judges. For 10 years, we watched the tortuous back-and-forth battle between courts and legislators in Ohio. The legislature added millions of dollars to schools and the lawsuit fizzled, but not before it costs taxpayers millions more in legal fees.

Now, lawsuit mania is brewing on another front - against the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law.

The New York Times reported recently that a small but growing number of school systems around the country are going to court to resist the demands of the law. It requires schools to annually improve students' test scores or eventually lose federal dollars. Districts such as Reading, Pa., are filing lawsuits claiming compliance is too costly and too difficult.

Congress has added millions to education spending to help schools comply. But many of them say it's not enough to do what's required.

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