State to defend education budget

Plaintiffs finish presenting their case alleging state underfunds schools

Posted: Thursday, October 19, 2006

ANCHORAGE - A lawsuit claiming the state spends too little on education has ended its first phase.

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Parents and school districts suing the state to get more money for schools wrapped up their case Tuesday in Anchorage Superior Court.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs presented experts, school employees and others who said Alaska children do not receive the education promised by the Alaska Constitution.

The plaintiffs contend teachers know what programs can help students but cannot pay for them. More money would allow districts to hire top teachers, according to the plaintiffs. They say it's obvious more money is needed when some school districts post low test scores and high dropout rates and have no access to necessary academic classes.

The case, Moore v. Alaska, is named for a Wasilla mother, Kristine Moore, but involves other plaintiffs, including parents, several school districts, and the National Education Association-Alaska, the state's 13,000-member teachers union.

Plaintiffs in other states have won similar cases but the effects of winning are uncertain.

Today, Education Commissioner Roger Sampson is scheduled to take the stand as the first witness for the defense.

Sampson has defended the current system, claiming money alone will not solve problems in Alaska classrooms.

Many of the witnesses who testified so far agreed, but said more money is a necessary first step to success.

They listed classes and programs that are not available in many classrooms, particularly in rural areas. Some lack physical education classes, art, music, science and academics such as higher-level math, science and literature.

Wayne Morgan, a father of four, school board president and tribal chief, testified Tuesday that the dropout rate in his village of Aniak would improve if the district could offer a program for at-risk kids.

"We're so focused on passing the exit exam, improving our test scores, practicing test-taking," Morgan said. "I think there's more to life than just passing the exit exam."

Morgan said school should prepare Aniak youths and other Alaska children for life after high school.

Some witnesses said there is a connection between school funding and how well children do academically.

Defense attorneys have repeatedly brought up the role parents play in education. That came up Tuesday during testimony by Bill Bjork, president of NEA-Alaska and a teacher for more than 30 years.

"The role of parents in a child's education is vital, isn't it?" asked Anne Johnson, an assistant attorney general, during the state's cross-examination.

Bjork said that was true.

Plaintiffs' attorney Keri Clark asked Bjork what happens when parents are not engaged in their child's education.

"The schools have no choice," Bjork said. "They have to backfill that. The absence of an engaged parent can't be a death sentence for a child's education."

If Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason decides funding is unconstitutionally low, consideration of a remedy would be the next step, said Collin Middleton, lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

Judges generally cannot order legislatures to appropriate money, he said, but Alaska lawmakers have a history of paying attention to court findings in school matters. He wants the judge to order a study of what it costs to run an adequate public school system.

Once that dollar figure is known, Middleton said, he would ask that the state pay to educate Alaska children according to the findings.

The trial is expected to last through the month.



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