State wants lawsuit on school funds dropped

Department of Law argues Alaska is immune from such lawsuits, plaintiffs' claims are political questions

Posted: Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The state has asked a Superior Court judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a teachers union, parents and others that would force Alaska to spend more on schools.

Among other arguments, the state said it is immune from such lawsuits; the plaintiffs' claims are political questions not subject to review by a judge; and what the plaintiffs want from the court violates the separation of powers.

The state Department of Law filed its response to Moore v. Alaska on Sept. 27 with Judge Sharon Gleason of Anchorage Superior Court. The lawsuit is named after Kris Moore, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough parent and a plaintiff.

The parties are set to appear before Gleason in early November to work out a schedule for proceeding with the case.

The plaintiffs say the state has set academic standards but doesn't give schools enough money to meet them. The state has not provided the education required by the Alaska Constitution, the lawsuit says.

Inadequate state funding harms some of Alaska's 130,000 students more than others, violating equal-rights and due-process clauses in the state constitution, the plaintiffs also said in their Sept. 16 court filing.

They want the court to require the state to determine adequate school funding and provide it.

"Basically, what we have decided is the state has set up what is an adequate education. All they have to do is fund it," said Collin Middleton, of the Anchorage firm Middleton and Timme, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Assistant Attorney General Neil Slotnick said other states have more specific language in their constitutions about the education that will be offered, such as saying it will be thorough or adequate.

"Ours just says we have to have a (school) system open to all," he said.

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

In the past 15 years, 30 states have been sued over it, said 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 the conference, which is owned by the 50 state legislatures.

In Alaska, 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.

But Slotnick said Alaska courts have shown deference to the idea that education policy should be left to the Legislature. In the Hootch case, the court didn't order the state to build schools, he said.

The plaintiffs in the Moore case consist of parents in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Akiak, Aniak and Koyuk; the Yupiit School District; the Bering Strait School District; Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children, which is a nonprofit group of educators, school districts and others; and the NEA-Alaska, a union that includes 12,000 teachers.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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