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Perhaps they'll listen now

The best result of the school funding lawsuit would be action in Salem

We hope that a lawsuit filed against the state by several school districts and parents never makes it before a judge. That's not because we don't support the idea behind the suit, but because we hope it moves the state ' and, more specifically, the Legislature ' to finally do something about the intolerable financial straightjacket they have put our schools in.

On Tuesday, six school districts and five parents filed suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court, alleging that the state has failed to meet its obligation to public K-12 schools.

Among the school districts filing suit is the Three Rivers district, which is primarily in rural Josephine County. Three Rivers School Board member Dave Toler can cite with sad certainty the cost to his district and its children. The schools in Three Rivers have lost 140 teaching positions, a 30 percent decline. Kindergarten class sizes have grown from the low 20s to the high 20s. Several elementary schools have part-time principals and the number of administrators has been cut from eight to five. Music and arts classes disappeared long ago; now vocational ed classes ' the very courses that keep many non-college-bound students in school ' are falling by the wayside.

Three Rivers' story is a sad one, but it's one that can be told over and over in districts big and small throughout the state. The six school districts who filed the suit are only the tip of the iceberg for struggling schools and they will have a large number ' perhaps all ' of the other Oregon school districts rooting for them in their effort.

The attorney representing the plaintiffs says they have a very good chance of winning in court. Oregon will become the 39th state to be challenged over inadequate funding; 21 of the 28 cases decided so far have come down in favor of the plaintiffs. Beyond that, the Oregon case is particularly strong, because the state in 1991 established goals under the Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century and in 2000 voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring the Legislature to provide adequate funding. The state Quality Education Commission reported in 2004 that there were deficiencies across the board in K-12 education and that the problems were getting worse.

So the required funding is not being provided and the goals are not being met. The state had best start figuring out what to do when it loses in court.

— That's not to say there's an easy fix, given that the state's voters have been loath to support tax measures. But we do think there is a glimmer of opportunity, probably centering around the kicker law. Using a portion of kicker funds ' particularly the corporate kicker ' could very well pass muster.

No one should think that if the state loses the lawsuit and must provide more funding that our problems are solved. Not by a long shot; in fact the problems would almost certainly ramp up as the money is pulled from other necessary services ' higher education, social services and state police among them.

All the more reason for the Legislature to avoid the court case by actually responding to the issue. Our elected officials in Salem have repeatedly promised to fix school funding and repeatedly failed to do so. It will take some political courage to suggest a new funding mechanism for schools and for the state as a whole. Political courage has not been our Legislature's strong suit.

It's time for that to change. It's time that we all realize that in failing to adequately support our public schools, we are failing our kids and failing ourselves. Education is the engine that drives our economy. Unless we're prepared to be supported by generations of people working in Wal-Mart and McDonald's, we need to overhaul that engine and be prepared to once again invest in the future.