Alaska editorial: Courts are wrong place to resolve education funding

Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Alaska's Constitution requires the state to provide "a system of public schools open to all children." Nowhere in the constitution does it say the courts are empowered to decide if teachers are paid enough money, if students are passing enough tests, or if legislators are giving school districts enough money per student.

And yet, those are the kinds of questions getting attention in a monthlong trial under way in state court in Anchorage. A coalition of parents, school districts, a teachers' union and others claims that, despite the nearly $1 billion the state spends each year on some 500 public schools for 130,000 children, the state has failed in its constitutional duty to provide "a system of public schools open to all children."

What the lawsuit really claims is that the state does not provide an "adequate" system of public schools - even though the word "adequate" never appears in the Alaska Constitution.

Evaluating a school system's "adequacy" is fundamentally a question of educational practice, not legal requirements. It's a matter for legislators and school boards to decide, not judges. It involves complicated claims about what makes a good education, whether more money will make a difference, and how to balance conflicting claims on limited public resources. As a result, the trial sounds more like a legislative hearing on the education budget than a court case to resolve a constitutional question.

Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason declined to dismiss the case outright. As her ruling suggests, it is theoretically possible that the state does such a shoddy job of providing schools that it does not meet a minimum standard implicitly set in the constitution.

In such an extreme case, Alaska's school system might look like Alaska's health care system. Even though the state spends more than $1 billion on health care for poor and disabled citizens, more than 100,000 other residents have no health coverage beyond their own pocketbooks. There are no huge gaps like that in the state's public school system.

Seven years ago, a lower court did rule that one aspect of Alaska's school system was inadequate. In the Kasayulie case, a judge ruled that state funding for rural school buildings was constitutionally "inadequate" and discriminatory.

But it's a lot easier to look at a school building and decide it is inadequate than it is to critique the quality of the education delivered inside the building. Even a layman can see that schools with leaky roofs, sagging foundations and broken windows are unsafe. A layman can understand that it's unfair to let those conditions persist in rural schools while most state school construction money goes to urban areas.

It's a totally different story to ask, as the current lawsuit essentially does, to put courts in charge of ensuring that every student learns everything in the state's 145-page educational standards booklet. That's no job for a court to undertake.

Yes, there's a strong case to be made that Alaska schools do not have enough money to meet today's educational challenges. Alaska's schools are struggling to ensure that all students, regardless of family background or their own motivation, learn what they are supposed to know.

One expert in the lawsuit contends that the state would have to roughly double its spending to put Alaska schools back on the same financial footing they enjoyed in the late 1980s. And that's not even considering the dramatically stronger academic standards imposed since then, and the demographic changes that have swept the ranks of Alaska students. With immigration and growing numbers of Alaska Native children, schools are coping with more languages and more cross-cultural challenges than ever.

But the case for more funding should be made to elected policymakers and taxpaying citizens. It is not a matter for judges who have no expertise in the field and no accountability to the people who will have to pay the bills.

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