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Rural Schools Win In Alaska Settlement

Rural Alaskan schools scored a victory earlier this month when the state agreed to settle a 14-year-old lawsuit that alleged funding inequities.

An EdWeek story published Tuesday reported the agreement requires the state to replace or repair schools in five remote villages at an estimated cost of $146 million. The deal still must be approved by Gov. Sean Parnell and by the superior court judge on the case.

Although the settlement targets only five districts, the mere existence of the lawsuit has been a game-changer for the state's rural schools. More than $1.2 billion has gone to rural school facilities during the past decade, and the state has new rules requiring it to fund rural school construction projects.

We've noted here before that rural school supporters nationwide are fighting what they say are inequitable funding systems, and in many states, have taken their case to court. Just last month, testimony in the Lobato v. State of Colorado case wrapped up. The Lobato case involves 21 mostly rural school districts and parents who are challenging the way the state distributes money to its public schools.

And in New Jersey, the attorney for 16 poor, rural school districts promised to continue fighting for the enforcement of a state ruling that would provide them with more money, according to a Press of Atlantic City article.

In Alaska, the plaintiffs argued the state neglected to consistently fund grants for rural school construction, and that became particularly problematic for districts in unincorporated areas with no taxable base or governance structure to issue bonds. These districts were at the mercy of the state when they needed to pay for capital projects, according to the article.

Cities and towns, however, had taxable property and benefited from a state bond-reimbursement program that paid 70 percent of the bonds.

The state's highest court previously ruled the state's approach to school facilities funding was unconstitutional and discriminated against rural areas, so the state created and funded a list of high-priority school construction projects. Before that, it had been 10 years since a rural construction project received funding.

The Anchorage Daily News had an interesting story in February 2010 about the issue, and it stated $777 million had gone to rural districts since the lawsuit was filed.

Lawmakers also passed a new mandate for the state to give rural areas about one-fourth the amount given to cities for the bond-reimbursement program.

The story quotes the rural superintendent of one of the plaintiff districts as saying:

"Our schools used to be in terrible shape. There was asbestos in there. There were lots of other problems. But there is still plenty of need in rural Alaska. So the fact that the government has established a rubric by which to fund rural education will have a huge impact."

Rural education advocates said the Kasayulie v. State of Alaska will create long-term funding solutions, and they credited the state's new governor and commissioner of education as key to negotiating the new agreement.

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