School Funding Litigation Overview
For easy reference, we have one-page PDF tables of the status of school funding litigations by state:
- Litigations Challenging Constitutionality of K-12 Funding
- School Funding Adequacy Decisions by Outcome
- Equity and Adequacy School Funding Liability Court Decisions
Although courts were called upon as early as 1819, in Massachusetts, to decide education finance litigations, the modern era of school funding cases began with decisions in California in 1971 and in New Jersey and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. An attempt to rely on federal equal protection for funding equity, in Rodriguez v. San Antonio, led to the 1973 Supreme Court decision which concluded that education is not a fundamental right under the federal constitution.
The Rodriguez plaintiffs took their case to the Texas state courts and won. Since Rodriguez, plaintiffs across the country have sought relief primarily in state courts, under state constitutional education clauses or equal protection clauses.
Equal protection (“equity”) claims were common in the 1970s and 1980s, and defendants won about two-thirds of those cases, including suits in Colorado and Georgia. However, plaintiff victories were realized during this period in Connecticut, Washington, and West Virginia. Since 1989, plaintiffs have won about two-thirds of the school funding decisions, including landmark cases in Kentucky and Montana. Many of these victories resulted, in part, from a shift in legal strategy away from “equity” claims to claims emphasizing the right to an “adequate” education, which also led courts in several states, such as Idaho and South Carolina, to reverse or distinguish earlier cases in which defendants had prevailed.
Some plaintiff losses, in Maine, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, came in equity cases where the state supreme court indicated that an adequacy claim might fare better. Nonetheless, equity cases were brought and won during these years in New Hampshire and Vermont. In some states where litigation has failed, advocates have successfully pursued alternative strategies, such as amending the state constitutions in Florida and Oregon.
A few cases have also alleged that state finance systems discriminate under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act and §1983, the post-Civil War anti-discrimination statute, such as in Alaska. More recently, however, U.S. Supreme Court decisions have largely eliminated this legal route.
For a more complete history of state and federal education finance cases and the development of the concept of a constitutional right to an adequate education, see the article by Michael A. Rebell, “Education Adequacy, Democracy, and the Courts” (2002).
Recent major developments affecting education finance litigations include (the link on each state’s name goes to the relevant news story on that event):
School funding-related lawsuits filed in Michigan
Michael Rebell, Safeguarding Sound Basic Education in Times of Fiscal Constraint, 75 Albany Law Review 1855 (2012).
Michael Rebell, Courts and Kids: Pursuing Educational Equity Through the State Courts (2009).
Peter Schrag, Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America’s Schools, (2003).
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Report on Public School Finance Systems in the United States and Canada (with state-by-state profiles)
Last updated March 2015