Alaskans sue for more state school funds

Plaintiffs say inadequate funding hits poor, minorities the hardest

Posted: Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Some parents, two rural school districts, a citizens group and a teachers union have filed a lawsuit to try to force the state to spend more money on education.

They also say inadequate funding has hit low-income, special-education, minority and gifted students the hardest.

The plaintiffs announced the lawsuit over the adequacy and fairness of state school funding in a news teleconference Monday in Anchorage.

"The state does not invest enough in schools to provide an adequate education for all students," and it provides for various students differently, said Kim Langton, superintendent of Kuspuk Schools and chairman of Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children, one of the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs say the state has set academic standards that students and schools must meet. But scores on standardized tests show that many children aren't making the grade. By failing to fund the resources needed to meet academic expectations, the state has not provided the education required by the Alaska Constitution, the lawsuit says.

Sen. President Gene Therriault, in an interview, said he was disappointed by the lawsuit.

"We've come up this year, in a tight budget situation, with the largest increase in K-12 funding in the history of the state, ($82 million) and the appreciation is expressed in a lawsuit," said Therriault, R-North Pole.

Roger Sampson, state commissioner of education, said he was surprised the plaintiffs chose to take the issue to the courts, rather than working it out elsewhere, particularly in light of recent reports showing that more Alaska schools are doing better in meeting academic standards. Sampson also cited the new state funding.

The state will spend about $800 million in the upcoming school year on K-12 education. The state and federal governments fund schools that aren't in a borough. State, federal and local governments pay for schools in cities and boroughs.

Lawsuits that challenge the adequacy or fairness of state funding are common nationally.

"This is the civil rights issue of our time," said Bill Bjork, president of National Education Association-Alaska, a teachers union that is one of the plaintiffs.

In the past 15 years, 30 states have been sued over the adequacy of their education systems, says the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most lawsuits related to operating funds, but some dealt with the condition of school buildings.

Plaintiffs have won about 20 of the lawsuits, and others are unresolved, said Steve Smith, a senior education policy specialist for the conference, which is owned by the 50 state legislatures.

The Molly Hootch case in the mid-1970s prompted Alaska to build more rural secondary schools, so students wouldn't have to attend regional boarding schools. The Kasayulie lawsuit that began in 1997 caused Alaska, in a partial settlement, to address unequal funding for school construction in the Bush.

Lawsuits can result in courts ordering states to calculate how much money is needed for adequate schools and to spend it. That's what the Alaska plaintiffs are seeking.

Judges who find in favor of plaintiffs generally don't set a dollar amount, but they review whether the state's remedy is sufficient, Smith said.

Sen. President Therriault said legislators, unlike judges, have to look at all of the state's needs in allocating scarce financial resources.

"Would we all like to give education more money? Absolutely," Therriault said. "But does that mean the pioneers' homes get less money, or what about Alzheimer's?"

The lawsuit, which could take up to two years to be resolved, is funded by the national NEA, NEA-Alaska, CEAAC and grants, said Collin Middleton, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Between 1986 and 2002, state expenditures on education dropped $3,251 per student, taking into account inflation. Even in actual dollars, state funding increased only $78 per student, the lawsuit says.

Since then, state funding has increased. The Legislature added $82 million for the upcoming school year, but Bjork of NEA-Alaska called that "a finger in the dike of a much larger problem."

A state House subcommittee that recommended this year's major funding increase said most of that extra money would be required to prevent Alaska schools from laying off teachers and cutting services. Many schools, hit by inflation and increased retirement costs, were contemplating deep budget cuts before the extra money was approved.

The lawsuit also cites, as evidence of a troubled school system, rising ratios of students to teachers, high turnover of teachers, an inflation-adjusted decrease in teacher salaries from 1980 to 2000 and a variety of staff shortages.

"We cannot afford a PE teacher for all sites, period," said plaintiff Mike Williams, member of the Yupiit School District School Board in the Kuskokwim area. "We cannot afford art teachers in all sites. ... We can't afford to teach world languages at all sites."

Kris Moore, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough parent and a plaintiff, said parents raise funds to buy computers, library books and gym equipment. A familiar method is through the sale of holiday wrapping paper.

"The stresses of selling enough wrapping paper to meet the needs of our children is too much to bear," she said.

Plaintiff Rosemary Otton of Koyuk, a former teacher's aide, said her family has seen a big decline in school funding in the past 20 years. One of her sons attended the state's Mount Edgecumbe boarding high school in Sitka to take courses he couldn't get at home.

"We feel we need to urge the lawmakers to invest in our children," Otton said.

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