Lawyers made arguments in the Consortium for Adequate School Funding lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court on Tuesday. The lawsuit claims that small, poor counties are treated unfairly because they do not raise enough money from local taxes to make up for more than $1 billion in cuts to state education spending in recent years.
"There are systematic deficiencies across the state of Georgia," consortium attorney Ben Rogers told Judge Elizabeth E. Long. "We can't afford not to address these issues. We need the state to step up."
The state has tried before to halt the lawsuit, which was filed in 2004. The following year, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the case could go forward.
The state's attorneys say Georgia fulfills its constitutional obligations when it comes to funding education. The state argues that it has increased education funding consistently, from $4,870 per pupil in 1996 to $8,428 last year.
They say that school districts can raise local property taxes or cut funding to nonacademic programs if they need more money. For example, some school districts offer classes such as guitar, aerobic dance, mythology and television broadcasting, which are not required under the state's curriculum, said attorney Rocco Testani, who is representing the state.
"It's a question of priorities, of local control and management," Testani said. "These districts spend money on things not required by state law."
The case is set to go to trial Oct. 21 unless Long approves the state's final motion for dismissal. Long gave no timeline at Tuesday's hearing for issuing a decision.
If it loses, the state could be forced to funnel more than $1 billion into education coffers.
The consortium is asking for a fairer way to determine funding for the state's rural districts and more money to provide services to students who need extra tutoring and academic help. For example, the state allots $40.26 per student to cover the cost of all textbooks for the year.
Georgia's lawsuit is one of about 20 ongoing education funding cases nationally, said Michael A. Rebell, executive director of the National Access Network housed at Columbia University. Since the first case in 1989 in Kentucky, most states have seen legal challenges to how they spend tax dollars on education, he said.
Of the 28 cases that have been ruled on by the courts, the plaintiffs have won 70 percent of the time, he said.
"Quite often you need judicial intervention to keep constitutional principals active," Rebell said. "There are a lot of politics in this issue."