ATLANTA -- The legal chess game involving state funding of school systems moved into the court system Tuesday, and McDuffie County's superintendent can't wait to see how it plays out.
"I think it is a great move for the boys and girls in Georgia," said Mark Petersen late Tuesday. "It's obvious that funding from the state is inadequate, and we're really glad that it took place. Over time, we think that the funding will be changed and school children will receive a larger amount of money."
Dozens of local school districts filed a lawsuit against the state Tuesday, accusing public officials of shortchanging Georgia's children by failing to fund public education adequately.
The lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, asks the court to sweep aside the state's current method for funding schools and order the legislature to start over again.
It sets the stage for a courtroom showdown that could radically alter the way Georgia bankrolls thousands of schools across the state and might pave the way for a statewide tax increase. It comes as local systems brace for more budget cuts and a task force appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue examines the formula used to divvy up education funding.
According to the districts' complaint, the General Assembly has used an arbitrary system to earmark funds for schools and has chronically underfunded education, a trend the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia says hits poor, rural districts particularly hard.
"The Georgia school funding system, while purporting to fund a Quality Basic Education, fails to do so," the suit says, referring to the official name of the formula used to allocate the state's school dollars. "The resources the school funding system provides to many school districts ... bear no relation to the resources needed to provide an adequate education to their students."
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the consortium, five "plaintiff districts" that will be used as an example if the case goes to trial and students in each of those districts. In addition to the state, Superintendent Kathy Cox, the State Board of Education and individual members of the board are also named as defendants.The consortium's 51 member districts include Jefferson, McDuffie and Warren counties.
The lawsuit argues that plaintiff districts are forced to skimp on extra programs to help students succeed, even though many of those students are more likely to drop out or fail academically. Students in plaintiff districts don't perform as well on state and national tests as their counterparts in other parts of Georgia or the nation, according to the lawsuit.
"The harm caused by the failure of Georgia's school funding system is enduring and will persist for students throughout their lifetimes, injuring their ability to find productive work that will permit them to support themselves, to avoid economic dependency, and to participate productively in the economic life of Georgia and the United States," the lawsuit says.
Joe Martin, the consortium's executive director, praised Perdue's recent efforts to overhaul the state's funding formula, but he said the districts had no choice.
"The underfunding has gotten so severe that we just can't wait any longer," Mr. Martin said.
He added that the consortium would be willing to hold back to give the governor extra time to complete a cost study and take other steps if it opened up a chance for reform.
"Our goal is not to win in court, our goal is to improve funding," Mr. Martin said.
State officials defended some of the efforts already under way to change the state formula.
"The governor is disappointed," press secretary Loretta Lepore said. "He is committed to investing in excellence in education."
She pointed to the Education Finance Task Force, which began work in earnest last month. Mrs. Cox, Mr. Hunter and members of the state board all serve on the task force.
Kirk Englehardt, a spokesman for Cox and the State Department of Education, also pointed to the panel's work as an indication elected leaders like the governor are serious about reform.
"He realizes that we need to do more than place a band-aid on how we invest in education in the state," said Mr. Englehardt. "It's certainly not putting a damper on our work."
But the lawsuit filed Tuesday pointed out that a steady line of funding recommendations from similar panels had been routinely ignored by the General Assembly for many years.
"Regardless of the good intentions of the task force, the historical record makes clear that after QBE's enactment in 1985, the actions and recommendations of such task forces, even when not prematurely disbanded, have done little to ensure that the State actually provides Georgia's children with a constitutionally adequate education," the complaint says.