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1982 Recht decision: State still rumbles from aftershocks of reform ruling

Lawrence Pierce
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. One legacy of the Recht decision was that it ushered in an era of school construction and consolidation. The new Lincoln County High School cost $30 million and consolidated students from throughout the county.
Gazette file photo
Linda Martin, founder of Challenge West Virginia, initially was a big proponent of the Recht decision, but turned against it, she said, when the state botched a chance for education reform by consolidating schools.
Gazette file photo
Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht and then-Gov. Jay Rockefeller announce the historic 1982 Pauley v. Bailey case, where Recht ruled that the state's financing of public education deprived poor and rural students of a "thorough and efficient" education.
Read a related report here.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.The caseDan 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 constitutional amendment that would limit property taxes.Everyone agreed that West Virginia's education system needed to change dramatically, but no one wanted to pay for it.ImpactEducation 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, legacyLinda 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."Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.harris@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.
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