Adam Cotterell reports: A group of parents filed a lawsuit in October over fees in Idaho schools. They say charging fees for classes like science or art violates the state constitution. But to take on the state to change the education system they needed the right lawyer. They found Robert Huntley.
“Well, my first thought was here I go again charging at windmills,” Huntley says. He spent more than 15 years charging at one particular windmill. In 1990 Huntley took a case in which several school districts challenged the constitutionality of Idaho’s school funding mechanism.
He corrects himself. “It isn’t a windmill. It’s a labor of love so to speak.” A labor of love he says, because he didn’t get paid for much of the work he did on that case. And it’s not a windmill because that implies the problems surrounding school funding aren’t real or solvable, a reference to the book Don Quixote.
A mountain might be a better analogy. Huntley’s office walls are covered with pictures of him on mountain climbing trips. You can see a much younger Huntley grinning with Mount Everest looming behind him. The 80 year old long ago gave up climbing physical mountains. But he did succeed in his longest legal summit. He won the case over school funding, several times in fact as it bounced from court to court. One of those courts belonged to district judge Deborah Bail.
“I ruled that the current system for educational funding was unconstitutional,” explains Bail, “in that it did not allow the local districts to fulfill their obligation to provide safe buildings.”
Idaho’s Supreme Court upheld Bail’s ruling in 2005. Huntley, a former state Supreme Court judge himself, says that lawsuit started as a challenge to the entire funding structure. But after years in court it was narrowed to building funds. Huntley says that was easy to prove.
“We had a building in Pocatello where the foundations had eroded away and you climb in the basement and you can climb out through the wall,” he says.
That case wasn’t isolated. In the same time period many states faced similar lawsuits over school funding. The same year as Huntley’s victory in 2005, Montana’s Supreme Court ruled its legislature was not meeting its constitutional requirement to fund schools. A case in Washington State wrapped up earlier this year with a similar decision.
Huntley’s current case began as a challenge to class fees. Now there’s a second complaint which looks a lot like the case Huntley started on in 1990. It’s a broad challenge to the way the state funds schools. Huntley says a new suit is needed because schools are still dangerously underfunded.
“Everyone pretends that Supreme Court Decision in 2005 never happened,” he says, “Yes things have changed. They’ve changed for the worse.”
The head of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy says the state has cut as much as $300 million in education funding in the last dozen years. Mike Ferguson is not involved with the case, but he has researched school funding since he left his job as the state’s chief economist two years ago.
“It matters a lot where a child lives what kind of resources are available to fund their public education,” Ferguson says.
Ferguson says as the state has cut school funding, voters in local districts have dramatically increased the amount they’ve taxed themselves. Those local levies are based on property taxes. So areas with valuable property have a lot more money to spend.
“The poorer districts that don’t have that resource are finding it nearly impossible to fund a healthy education system,” he says.
Ferguson says from an economist’s perspective the state doesn’t seem to be meeting its constitutional requirement to maintain a “uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” That’s the constitutional article the Supreme Court and district judge Deborah Bail said the state was violating by not providing enough funding for safe schools. Bail says she’s seen no evidence that the problem has been fixed. And she did put a system in place to fix it.
“I had appointed a master to survey Idaho schools and then make recommendations as to which schools were in gravest disrepair, and what would be needed to address that,” she says. “And that process began and then was halted.”
Five years ago, the state asked the Supreme Court to toss out Bail’s plan. The court did while reaffirming its 2005 ruling that the system to fund schools was unconstitutional. But the justices said it was not the court’s job to tell the legislature what to do.
Compare that to Montana. When its Supreme Court declared school funding unconstitutional it ordered the state legislature to fix the problem and told them how to do that. Idaho’s justices on the other hand wrote “We are firmly convinced the Legislature will carry out its constitutional duties in good faith and in a timely manner.”
But Robert Huntley says lawmakers won’t fix the problems on their own. “[The court] trusted the legislature would take appropriate action but that trust has been abused.” That’s why, he says, he’s taken this new case challenging the school funding system.
Our efforts to speak with lawmakers about this have so far been unsuccessful. But Wednesday Idaho Governor Butch Otter spoke to a large group about the coming legislative session. Otter took questions afterward and Mike Ferguson asked if Idaho was meeting its constitutional obligation to fund schools. After nearly three minutes talking about connecting rural schools through the internet, Otter finished his response this way.
“I would say, we’re probably not but we’re doing the best job that we can.”
Meanwhile 80 year old Huntley says he probably doesn’t have enough time to fight another lengthy battle. He’s asked a court for a summary judgment: a ruling in his favor without a trial based on the 2005 decision. A district judge could take that up next month. This time Huntley hopes judges won’t leave it to the legislature. He wants the court to craft a system to fix Idaho’s school funding problems.