School Funding Inequity
The basic reason why the educational funding systems in the vast majority of states have been highly inequitable is that throughout the United States school funding relies to a substantial degree on local property taxes. This means that children who live in districts with low wealth and low property values—as most low income and most minority students do—will have substantially less money available to meet their educational needs. In recent times, in most parts of our country, children with the greatest needs have had the fewest resources devoted to them. Rectifying such funding inequities and ensuring that all schools have an adequate level of funding have been the primary concerns of the many state courts that have enforced student rights to a sound basic education.
History of School Funding Court Decisions
The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged in 1973 that substantial inequities existed in Texas’s education finance system, but it declined to remedy the situation because education is not a “fundamental interest” under the U.S. constitution (San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1). Since that time, plaintiffs challenging state school finance decisions have brought their claims in the state courts, and such litigations have been filed in 45 of the 50 states.
“Equity” and “Adequacy” Cases, What’s the Difference?
In the early years, most school funding cases sought equal per student funding based on equal protection clauses in state constitutions (“equity cases”). Defendant states won about two-thirds of these cases. Since the late ‘80’s, most plaintiffs have based their claims largely on provisions in state constitutions that guarantee all students an “adequate,” a “thorough and efficient” or a “sound basic” education. Many plaintiffs defined “adequacy” by invoking the academic content and graduation standards that most states began adopting at that time.
Since 1989, plaintiffs have won almost 60% of these “adequacy” cases. The vast majority of cases that defendant states have won since 1989 have not been based on a review of the evidence on whether current funding systems are adequate or equitable. Rather, these decisions have been based on separation of powers considerations, holding that it is not appropriate for the courts to review legislative decisions on school funding. In the states where plaintiffs have prevailed, the courts have held that judicial review of such legislative decisions is appropriate and necessary.
For a detailed history and analysis of the school funding litigations, see Michael A. Rebell, Courts and Kids: Pursuing Educational Equity Through the State Courts (University of Chicago Press, 2009), and 2017 supplement.