by Bess Keller
est Virginia solidified and extended its accoun-tability system last year, a move that state officials hope will go a long way toward resolving a school finance lawsuit dating from 1982.
The accountability-system additions approved by the legislature in March give the state greater oversight of its 55 county school districts. Just as important, the law explicitly provides for the possibility that the legislature will decide to pump money into the lowest-performing school systems, which are also among the state's poorest.
The ruling was updated in 1997 by retired Cabell County Circuit Judge Dan Robinson in a decision in an ongoing case brought by parents in Lincoln County. That suit charges that the governor, legislative leaders, the state school board, and the state superintendent have not done enough to fix the inequities.
In his ruling, Judge Robinson essentially agreed, saying that despite considerable progress, West Virginia's finance system still violates the state constitution. As an example, he noted that of the 55 counties--which are coterminous with the school districts--13 do not impose "excess levies." Those levies tack an additional amount onto the property tax, and the money is spent on county schools.
State education leaders acknowledge that much of the detailed plan Judge Recht drew up for the state's schools in 1982 has not been followed to the letter. But they argue that the judge's focus on resources rather than results is outdated. The real test of the schools is how well students perform, they say, and West Virginia has been building an accountability system that will ensure the constitutionally mandated "thorough and efficient" education for students in every county.
"We recommended to the judge that we use a new design for getting to outputs rather than inputs," says state schools Superintendent Henry Marockie. "The state of the art in education today focuses on results."
The latest additions to the accountability system came in March of last year. Following recommendations from the Governor's Commission on Educational Quality and Equity, the legislature passed a law establishing the Office of Education Performance Audits.
State law has long permitted the state board to intervene in a school system's affairs in the case of "extraordinary circumstances." And, in fact, the board has twice declared the existence of such circumstances, taking control of the Mingo County schools in 1998 and the Logan County schools four years earlier. Both districts were running significant budget deficits at the time of the takeovers, though Mingo County was also cited for low student achievement and a lack of leadership. The Logan County district returned to local control five years ago.
The new audits office will have broad authority over accountability. As they do now, state officials will annually review information from each district and periodically send out review teams to make unannounced site visits. They'll be looking to see whether schools and districts are performing adequately on state-mandated standardized tests--which include the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition in four subjects in grades 3 through 11--and whether they meet other state requirements.
The office will report schools and school systems in trouble to the state board. If the shortcomings are not corrected with assistance from the state education department, under the new law the office will assign a team of experts to work with them for up to six months.
The law also provides that the audits office will make recommendations about needed resources to the state board. If a significant amount of money is involved, the board will take a request to the legislature.
Over Marockie's objection, the new office will report directly to the board rather than to the superintendent. The schools chief supported the creation of the office, which consolidates much of his department's accountability work, but he contends that lines of responsibility will be harder to find in the new structure.
In the state's two takeovers to date, no funds outside the budget of the state education department were requested from the legislature. State officials hope that with a full-blown procedure in place for funneling expertise and money into low-performing school systems, the equity issue before Judge Robinson will lose much of its force.
The same legislation calls for the state board to oversee professional-development programs with the help of a new state professional-development council and eight regional ones. Lawmakers set aside $500,000 to provide for the programs and evaluate them.
The governor's education commission also recommended that:
Finally, the education panel raised the question of eliminating property taxes as the source of school funding. But it deferred to the Governor's Commission on Fair Taxation, convened in 1997.
The tax commission is not expected to complete its work for several more years, but it has made some preliminary recommendations. The first was to leave the resolution of school equity issues to the governor and the legislature. As matters currently stand, Judge Robinson must decide when the state has provided an equitable funding plan. The tax panel advised submitting to state voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the courts from the debate.
It also recommended eliminating statewide property taxes as the funding source for the state's allocations for basic education. Under the commission's proposal, other tax dollars would replace the portion of school funding now provided by state-mandated property taxes--about a quarter of the more than $1.5 billion that West Virginia spends annually on its schools.
The commission advised making the change as part of a general restructuring of West Virginia taxes.
But the panel recommended against eliminating the excess levy, which Judge Recht cited as a cause of school system inequity. Counties use the extra money for such things as school programs, salaries, and facilities. Counties too property-poor to easily impose such a tax miss out on the extra money, although since the late 1980s the state has put money into the equalization of teacher salaries.
The panel considered but in the end also decided against recommending a statewide excess levy. Commission members argued that as the state's population ages and fewer households have school-age children, the electorate will turn an even colder shoulder to such levies. Twice in the past 15 years voters have rejected them.
Still, proponents of the tax commission's recommendations argue that if the state were to take over almost all of the cost of a basic education, the lighter burden on property taxes might make it easier for counties to pass the excess levies. They say that the previous referendums were undermined by a provision that would have reduced education spending in some counties.
A trial date in the school finance lawsuit is expected to be set early in the year.
Vol. 18, number 17, page 183