Included below are a series of articles written by Amy Julia Harris that have appeared in the Charleston Gazette regarding the 30th anniversary of the school funding decision issued by Judge Arthur Recht.
1982 Recht decision: State still rumbles from aftershocks of reform ruling
A landmark 1982 court ruling by Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht found that West Virginia's public schools failed to meet a "thorough and efficient" standard demanded by the state Constitution. He ordered an overhaul of school financing with the idea that children from high and low property-value counties should receive the same education
By Amy Julia Harris for the Sunday-Gazette Mail (5/13/12)
HAMLIN, W.Va. -- Thirty years after a major education case sent shockwaves through West Virginia, the state is still trying to understand the aftermath.
Today, West Virginia has big education problems. The state ranks on the bottom of a host of national education-quality indicators -- low student test scores, weak teacher-quality laws and minimal education reforms. These problems exist three decades after a landmark 1982 court case aimed to restructure West Virginia education and wipe out disparities between the state's richest and poorest areas.
The case, Pauley v. Bailey -- known more commonly as "the Recht decision," after the judge who made it -- was released 30 years ago Monday.
In his ruling, Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht found that the state's public schools failed to meet a "thorough and efficient" standard demanded by the state constitution. The judge ordered an overhaul of school financing with the idea that children from high and low property-value counties should receive the same education.
"The Recht decision was historic," said U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who was governor at the time. "That case showed the real effect policy had on students and helped us all understand the importance of education equality in West Virginia. There's no question that rural students should have the same opportunity as those in more urban communities."
Yet, 30 years after Recht handed down the 244-page decision, West Virginians are still debating the case's impact. Did it make waves in education or just create minor ripples?
Kenna Seal, longtime head of the state Office of Education Performance Audits -- which was created by the Recht decision -- is among those who say it revolutionized education in West Virginia by demanding school accountability.
"Recht ushered down an era of accountability that is second to none in the United States," Seal said. "It made student performance a paramount goal. We created a system that is no longer all about inputs, but about how schools respond to high quality standards and how to provide those services and programs that students need."
Others say the case's reach was minimal. They argue that, while it aimed to tackle major funding disparities, it actually did little to change the way schools receive money. Instead, they say, it spurred state officials to close down and consolidate schools in the name of creating better facilities and educational opportunities.
Dan Hedges is a veteran Charleston attorney whose name has become synonymous with the Pauley v. Bailey case. Hedges, a silver-haired man whose Quarrier Street law office is adorned with whitewater rafting photos, said the strategy of the case was simple: change the school financing picture.
"Janet Pauley and I planned to challenge the way the overall system was set up," said Hedges. "It was about adequately funding education statewide."
Pauley, the mother of five children in Lincoln County schools, came to Hedges with the idea of suing the Lincoln County school system for the deplorable conditions she witnessed at her children's school.
Pauley found broken chairs and an open sewer running across the playground at McCorkle Elementary, a four-room rural school in Lincoln County, when she visited for a PTA meeting.
She was outraged. No one would stand for this in a richer county, she said.
Hedges jumped to action. He had a passion for creating an equitable education system, witnessing education disparities firsthand in the Roane County school where his grandfather was a schoolteacher.
He found an 1872 provision in West Virginia law that said the Legislature must provide a "thorough and efficient" system of public education to all the state's children. That phrase became the cornerstone of the Pauley case.
In 1975, Hedges filed a class-action lawsuit against the Lincoln County school system, arguing that Pauley's children and other poor students were being deprived of a high-quality education.
The case languished in court for years, but the West Virginia Supreme Court eventually sided with Pauley and said education is a fundamental constitutional right. It was then remanded to Kanawha Circuit Court, where it went before Judge Arthur Recht in 1981.
Recht's job was to decide whether West Virginia's Legislature had set up a system to provide a "high-quality education system" to students in all 55 counties.
He said the answer was a resounding no.
Recht ordered the Legislature to "completely reconstruct the entire system of education in West Virginia," calling the disparities between counties "outrageous."
"The state has a duty to eliminate the effects of unequal costs among counties of providing educational services due to factors such as county isolation, sparsity, terrain and road contentions," Recht wrote, pointing to major iniquities in the state's tax system.
In the sweeping opinion, Recht compared the vast differences between the facilities and course offerings in relatively poor Lincoln County to counties like Ohio that had a solid tax base.
"I found there definitely is a correlation between funding and the quality of the educational system," Recht said in a 1998 interview. "You know, it wasn't very difficult to know that there shouldn't be raw sewage going through the playground in one of the schools in Lincoln County. I mean, it didn't take a genius to figure that one out."
Recht ruled that to get to a "thorough and efficient" education system, the state needed to create centralized quality standards and dramatically change the state's tax structure and way of assessing property values. That prospect outraged some West Virginia legislators, who said the tax change would bankrupt the state.
Op-eds in 1982 screamed that Recht's decision could send residential property taxes up as much as 500 percent and cripple taxpayers.
Then-Gov. Rockefeller called a special session of the Legislature in July 1982 in response to the Recht decision. At that meeting, legislators approved placing a measure on the upcoming ballot that asked voters to approve a
Everyone agreed that West Virginia's education system needed to change dramatically, but no one wanted to pay for it.
Education financing was the crux of the Recht decision, but the case didn't have the far-reaching financial impact that either legislators or Recht envisioned. West Virginia didn't adopt a statewide excess levy that Recht had recommended. The state school aid funding formula was tweaked, but did not change dramatically. Teacher salaries became more equalized across counties, but not perfectly on par.
What the case did do was usher in systemic changes that didn't come with as hefty a price tag.
Dwight Dials, superintendent of Fayette County schools, said the Recht case created a playbook for educational improvement. It dictated a slew of new mandates, from teacher-to-student ratios to how much school building space should be utilized to standards for foreign language.
The one thing that was missing was the money to fully fund it.
"We ended up with a blueprint for education that might have been considered unrealistic by some because it wasn't affordable and doable," Dials said. "Without a huge amount of funding, there was just no way to truly implement it. It's great to say that every school should have two counselors, an art teacher and great technology -- but who is going to pay for that?"
All told, only about 60 percent of the education plans in the Recht decision have been implemented, Hedges said.
The Recht decision's biggest discernible impacts, educators and state officials say, was to restructure how West Virginia finances school construction and change how the state monitors the performance of schools.
Those changes spurred an era of school consolidations and state interventions in county school systems.
SBA, consolidation, legacy
Linda Martin, a Lincoln County mother active in the school PTA, remembers the day the Recht decision came down.
"I thought the decision was outstanding," Martin said. She had spent time researching inequalities among school systems and thought the remedy lay in revamping the state's unequal tax structure.
But that's not what happened.
"In implementing the decision, the state missed the opportunity to move the school system into the 21st century," Martin said. "Rather than create a quality education system, the state just spent billions of dollars on large school buildings, closed down community schools and put kids on long bus rides that burned up fossil fuels. They did nothing to really address education disparities, they just consolidated schools."
The terrible state of the physical school facilities in Lincoln County took center stage in the court proceedings, and state lawmakers took note in the 1980s.
The Legislature created the state School Building Authority in 1989, with the purpose of equitably distributing a centralized pool of taxpayer funds to build and repair schools.
However, the SBA also was expressly created to shut down schools, said Mark Manchin, the agency's executive director.
"The SBA was created to consolidate buildings," Manchin said. "There were so many schools with incredible inefficiencies within communities that were unwilling to close them. The Authority was created to encourage counties to get state funds to close old buildings and consolidate schools into state-of-the-art facilities so you don't have major disparities between the have and have-not counties."
That interpretation of the Recht decision converted Martin from a big Recht advocate to one of its staunchest opponents. In response, she founded Challenge West Virginia, an anti-consolidation advocacy organization pressing for small community schools.
She said school consolidation co-opted the Recht decision and became the state's go-to plan to deal with education problems. Rather than try to fix schools, she said, the philosophy became to close them.
"We still have low test scores today, high dropout rates and teacher shortages," Martin said. "Much of it has to do with decisions that were made to move forward with that decision in the way the state did. I was very unhappy with the results of the Recht decision because they could have been wonderful for students."
However, Seal, the first director of the Office of Education Performance Audits, said the Recht decision undoubtedly improved schools -- in facilities as well as in performance. Seal's office was created to monitor all 55 county school systems and see if they were creating the best possible system of education with existing resources.
"Instead of looking at what went into the system, it turned into what came out at the other end," Seal said. "For the first time, we were measuring quality standards to see whether we were providing a thorough and efficient system of schools in the state, rather than just looking at how much money we poured into schools."
Lincoln County, the epicenter of the Recht decision, is still evaluating the impact the decision had on its school system. The county faces some of the same problems highlighted in the 1982 decision, although to a lesser degree. Things are markedly better than when open sewers cut across elementary school playgrounds, school officials said, but there still are the problems of teacher shortages, run-down facilities and a lack of extracurricular and program offerings.
And all of it boils down to money, they said.
"We're never going to have absolute equality," said Jeff Midkiff, assistant superintendent of schools of Lincoln County. "There's always going to be those who are going to have the ability, for whatever reason, to be able to provide more in terms of what they can do for children and their education. I just don't think you can ever get rid of that."
Recht decision led to School Building Authority, but disagreement over the agency's proper role continues
By Amy Julia Harris, Charleston Gazette (5/14/12)
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last month, Dwight Dials made the 60-mile trek from Fayette County to Charleston with one goal in mind: to net $14 million from the state to create a new regional high school in Fayette County.
Dials, longtime superintendent of Fayette County schools, was one of 23 superintendents who lobbied the state School Building Authority for a collective total of $170 million to finance school construction projects last month.
"Everyone's asking for money and there's only so much to go around," said Dials. "We've all got needs."
Dials is now an old hand at selling state bureaucrats on the facility needs in his schools, a ritual stemming from a 1982 court case that dramatically restructured the way that West Virginia funds school building construction. His project didn't receive SBA funding, but he's going to try again next year.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the landmark decision handed down by Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht that said the state's system of financing public education was unconstitutional and did not create a "thorough and efficient" education system. In the case of Pauley v. Bailey, Recht ordered an overhaul of West Virginia's education system, an equitable way to finance school buildings, the creation of measurable performance standards and a mechanism to equalize educational opportunities between rich and poor counties.
Arguably the biggest thing to come out of the Recht decision was the creation of the School Building Authority. Created by the Legislature in 1989, the SBA irrevocably altered the way that schools throughout West Virginia approached their school buildings.
"The Recht decision focused on the haves and have-nots, and a lot of that focus was on facilities," said Mark Manchin, executive director of the SBA. "Facilities are the easiest places to see the inequities between rich and poor counties. Some counties ... didn't have the ability to pass an excess levy or bond and generate money, so they had to use Band-Aids to hold buildings together."
The SBA changed that.
Twice a year, superintendents throughout the state vie for a portion of the multimillion-dollar pot of taxpayer money distributed by the School Building Authority for construction projects. Since its inception in 1989, the SBA has devoted about $2 billion to school facilities, said Manchin, and has required counties to come up with 10-year plans for how to deal with their school facilities.
Before the Recht decision, property-poor school systems were caught in a Catch 22 situation of trying to raise enough local funds in the form of bonds and excess levies to pay for school repairs. Because places like Lincoln County had an extremely low tax base, they were incapable of raising enough money to make quality investments in their school facilities.
The SBA was supposed to eliminate that problem, but past problems with school financing persist, said Dana Smith, maintenance director of Lincoln County schools.
Lincoln County received a huge chunk of SBA money to create the $30 million consolidated Lincoln County High School several years ago, but Smith says major facilities problems persist in the rural county that are unlikely to trigger SBA funding.
"We probably have gotten our fair share from the SBA," said Smith. "But I don't think they'll give us any more without us passing a bond to finance what they consider our fair share. And I don't think that's what the Recht decision intended. I think it meant to try to get schools equalized, not just in funding but in facilities and staff and educational resources. But it's not there yet, not even close."
Linda Martin, a Lincoln County mother and ardent proponent of small community schools, agrees that West Virginia is years away from a fair and equitable education system across counties. In fact, she thinks the Recht decision backfired and created a worse education environment for children than that of the 1980s. She blames the School Building Authority.
"The people at the state level who made decisions following the Recht opinion seemed to be stuck in the industrial age," said Martin, the founder of small school advocacy group Challenge West Virginia. "I had high hopes when the decision came out, but the negativity outweighed any value. Almost everything that came out of that case was about consolidating schools, putting kids on buses and driving them long distances away from home. It was a horrible model to build a system on."
Rather than fix core educational disparity issues like teacher pay, educator quality, technology and accountability, she said the state decided to close schools.
"If you judge the case on whether student achievement is better then no, it's not," said Martin. "If you judge it by whether young people are participating in school activities, then no. If you judge it by what a building looks like and what's inside of it, then yes."
Manchin admits that the SBA was created with the express purpose of consolidating schools. School closings are dramatic and contentious, he said, but they work. Fixing facilities isn't window-dressing quality education reform -- it is directly tied to learning.
"School facilities are integral," said Manchin. "We're competing in a global economy and we need state-of-the-art schools. If you can't access high-speed Internet, interactive videos to offer AP classes, students are going to be behind. What good buildings do is level the playing field for rural children who wouldn't have access to opportunities in rich counties because of infrastructure issues."
Today, however, Manchin said the philosophy of the SBA has changed from being the state vehicle tasked with closing down schools to an entity that generates local support for building projects. Unlike the past, the SBA now prioritizes funding for projects that receive community backing -- and in many cases, the way to judge that is if voters put their money where their mind is and pass bonds and excess levies.
That "seismic shift" from pro-consolidation to pro-community support was a political shift influenced by then-Gov. Joe Manchin when he entered office in 2005.
"Gov. Manchin came in as an advocate for small community schools," said Mark Manchin, his cousin. "He prioritized local support, which was a major philosophical shift for the Authority."
Dials agrees that getting SBA money today is oftentimes a crapshoot, but projects that have local support are more heavily weighted.
"What we have now is a situation where the SBA wants an extensive buy-in on the front side," said Dials. "You have to show you're committing money to the project."
While perhaps it's a more democratic process, Smith says the SBA's philosophy change stacks the cards against property-poor counties that are incapable of raising as many funds to support school projects as their rich neighbors.
That leaves counties like Lincoln, which has not been able to pass a bond issue for decades, in a similar situation as before the Recht decision when poor school systems couldn't afford to make big facility repairs.
"There was a report years ago that said the county's four high schools needed to be replaced, but we've still got three of the four facilities that we converted to middle schools," said Smith. "Those buildings were a disaster. And in a lot of ways, they still are a disaster, but the SBA has said that the only way we can get any money for new schools from them is that we have to pass a bond. But what if we don't pass it? We're right back where we are now.
Manchin said that while local support is certainly a criterion in deciding which school building projects to fund, it's not the only thing the SBA considers.
"We've created an atmosphere that recognizes local support and whether counties are willing to go to voters to prioritize projects," said Manchin. "But that does not mean smaller more rural counties won't get funds. We're certainly not requiring major bond issues in smaller counties that don't have the wherewithal to support it."