Oregon school funding lawsuit back in court


A legal battle over school funding resumed Thursday in the Oregon Court of Appeals, as education advocates tried to persuade a three-judge panel that the Oregon Constitution requires the legislature to give billions more to public schools.

A Multnomah County judge previously sided with attorneys for the state, who say the constitution makes no guarantees on school funding.

Eighteen school districts and four families filed the lawsuit in 2006, accusing legislative leaders of chronically underfunding schools.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in 45 states. Twenty-eight of those have resulted in courts ordering lawmakers to restructure school funding, according to the National Access Network, a Columbia University-based group tracking the cases.

The Oregon case hinges on two points. The first is a clause in the constitution that charges the state with providing a "uniform and general system of common schools."

Lawyers for the school districts have argued that implicit in that clause is a requirement to fund schools at what they call an "adequate" level, an argument the state's lawyers have rejected.

The second point is a constitutional amendment from 2000 that requires legislators to give public schools the money recommended by an ambitious blueprint known as the "Quality Educational Model," which maps out a plan to bring nearly all Oregon students up to grade level in core subjects like English and math, via methods like smaller class sizes and extra help for struggling students.

Under the 2000 amendment, if legislators don't set aside enough money to meet the model's goals, they are required to explain why they didn't do so in a public report.

According to the Quality Education Model, $7.7 billion should have been given to public schools for the 2007-2009 fiscal cycle; schools actually received $6.245 billion.

John Woodward, an attorney representing the school districts, argued Thursday that when they approved the constitutional amendment in 2000, voters were intending to force the legislature's hand on school spending. Even the attorney general's office at the time, in a review of the proposed ballot title, had referred to the measure as "unambiguous," he said.

But Bob Atkinson, the senior assistant attorney general, said Oregonians had read in their 2000 voters' pamphlets and in newspaper editorials that the measure did not necessarily have a fiscal impact, but was intended as an accountability check on lawmakers.

"Voters understood that this would not have the dramatic effect that plaintiffs suggest," he said. "The legislature has never acted as though the funding issue was a mandate."

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