West Virginia education policy was shaped throughout the late 20th century by a court decision rendered by Judge Arthur Recht in a case challenging the equity of school policy. In 1975, Janet Pauley filed a class-action lawsuit against the Lincoln County school system, alleging the Pauley children and others attending schools in property-poor counties were not receiving educational opportunities equal to students in richer counties. She also alleged the quality of their education did not meet the ‘‘thorough and efficient’’ standard required by the state constitution. Pauley’s attorney, Dan Hedges, argued this standard guaranteed all school children in the state an equal opportunity to a high quality, free public education. The case was dismissed from Circuit Court and appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court, ruling in Pauley’s favor, confirmed that education was ‘‘a fundamental, constitutional right.’’ Public school children were entitled to an equal opportunity to public education statewide, and the Supreme Court ruled that the legislature has a constitutional mandate ‘‘to develop a high quality statewide education system.’’ The case was remanded to Circuit Court to collect evidence to see if West Virginia’s schools met these constitutional standards. Judge Recht of Ohio County presided over the trial.
For 17 months, testimony was presented by more than 30 education experts in an effort to establish the standards for a ‘‘high quality education’’ and to determine whether all West Virginia schools met those standards. On May 14, 1982, Judge Recht issued a voluminous opinion detailing the standards established by the expert testimony. He ruled that West Virginia schools fell short of meeting these standards and that the funding system caused unequal education opportunities from county to county.
This decision, generally referred to as the ‘‘Recht Decision,’’ was controversial. Critics alleged the standards were set so high that they could never be achieved. Proponents argued the state’s survival depended upon the education of its youth. The State Department of Education was charged with the duty to implement the decision. On December 12, 1984, in the case of Pauley v. Bailey, the West Virginia Supreme Court approved the Education Department’s Master Plan for Public Education.
While no school in West Virginia has ever met all of the standards established by the Recht decision or the Master Plan, the litigation led to sweeping improvements in public education. Hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on new schools, upgraded facilities, and improved curriculum. The school aid formula was modified to provide a more equal distribution of state funds to counties. The Circuit Court retained jurisdiction in the case to monitor the schools’ progress. In January 2003, Judge Recht ended the decades-long period of educational reform by closing the case and relinquishing jurisdiction.
This Article was written by William McGinley
Last Revised on October 22, 2010