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FLASHBACK: Pauley v. Kelly Forces West Virginia To Overhaul Its School Financing System

FLASHBACK: Pauley v. Kelly Forces West Virginia To Overhaul Its School Financing System

The year was 1979.  It was a turbulent time all across the globe.  The USSR launched its ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan.  In Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini established an Islamic Republic, leading to the capture of 63 Americans in the Embassy in Tehran. 

It was also a turbulent time in West Virginia.  Parts of West Virginia were profoundly affected by poverty, especially southern counties where the coal mining industry was no longer driving the economy.  Because of West Virginia’s funding system for its public schools, this poverty was felt in the classroom.  Unfortunately, poorer counties were receiving inferior school facilities, curriculum, and personnel.  In the late 1970’s, a group of families from Lincoln County brought a suit challenging the funding system, arguing that it violated the guarantee of a “thorough and efficient system of free schools” and guaranteed by Article XII, Section 1 of the West Virginia Constitution.  The trial court dismissed the complaint, but the families appealed to the Supreme Court, insisting that the state’s constitutional guarantee required the legislature to enact a system that protected poorer counties and insured that school funding was fair and equitable.

In a 4-1 decision, the Supreme Court agreed with the families and remanded the case for full development.  Examining the history of the thorough-and-efficient guarantee and cases from sister states, the Court determined that education was a fundamental right under West Virginia law.  Therefore, “any discriminatory class found in the education funding system cannot stand unless the state can demonstrate some compelling state interest to justify the unequal classification.”  One of the fundamental flaws with the funding system was its reliance on local tax revenue generated from real estate taxes, making it difficult for poor counties to be competitive.  This and many other features of the school funding formula were to be explored by the parties as part of the remand. 

Pauley marked the beginning of a long, difficult process to update the state’s school funding system.  It involved the legislature, the tax commissioner, local school and tax representatives, and many others, all of whom played a part in litigating the case and in formulating a master plan to implement changes over time.  The case remained active for years, with the courts overseeing implementation of the plan.  Pauley also emboldened families in other states to challenge shortcomings in their own school funding systems, leading to a wave of similar litigation across the country.

Pauley v. Kelly, 162 W. Va. 672, 255 S.E.2d 859 (1979)

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