Litigating the Right to Education in the United States
Lawsuits challenging state methods of funding public schools have been launched in 45 of the 50 states over the past 40 years, and in recent years they have been extraordinarily successful. Since 1989 — in an era largely dominated by the conservative political agenda —plaintiffs have prevailed over 60% of the final liability decisions in cases based on “adequacy claims”----- assertions that all students have a constitutional right to a meaningful educational opportunity. And despite (or perhaps, because of) the tightening of state budgets since the 2008 recession, the courts so far have upheld all of the dozen or so compliance claims that plaintiffs have brought to enforce these rights.
The state courts’ active involvement in promoting equal educational opportunity in the schools resulted from the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal in 1973 to consider the extensive inequities in state systems for financing education, at about the same time that the High Court was beginning its retrenchment from actively promoting school desegregation. Blatant inequities in school funding that historically plagued the education systems in almost all states largely resulted from the fact that the financing of public education has long been based primarily 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.
The state courts that have upheld students’ rights in adequacy suits have arrived at a virtual consensus that an “adequate” or “quality” education requires:
- Basic academic knowledge and skills, including sufficient knowledge of geography, history, and basic economic and political systems and sufficient intellectual tools to make informed choices with regard to issues that affect them personally or affect their communities, states, and nation; sufficient social and communication skills to work well with others and communicate ideas to a group; and sufficient academic and vocational skills to compete in further formal education or in gainful employment in contemporary society.
- The essential resources students need to acquire this knowledge and these skills, including qualified teachers, principals, and other personnel; appropriate class sizes; adequate school facilities; supplemental programs and services for students from high poverty backgrounds, appropriate programmes and services for students with disabilities and for English-language learners; textbooks, computers and software, libraries, laboratories, and a safe, orderly learning environment.
- The preparation of students to function productively as capable citizens of a democratic society and as competitive workers in the global economy.
What has this spate of litigation actually achieved?
A major study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published in January, 2015 considered the impact of state Supreme Court decisions in 28 states between 1971 and 2010. It concluded that school finance reforms stemming from court orders have tended both to increase state spending in lower-income districts and to decrease expenditure gaps between low- and high-income districts. The researchers found that a 20 percent increase in annual per-pupil spending for K-12 low income students leads to almost one more year of completed education. In adulthood, these students experienced 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20 percentage-point decrease in adult poverty. The authors posit that these results could reduce at least two-thirds of the achievement gap of adults who were raised in low- and high-income families. Outcomes have not been fully successful in all states. In some places there has been fierce opposition to the court decrees.
Forty years of fiscal equity and education adequacy litigation have proved two things: Money matters ---- but only when used effectively. And judicial involvement is critical for assuring equity in education funding ---- but court orders also generally must also be accompanied by informed public awareness and forceful political action.
For detailed information on past and current litigations in all fifty states, consult the schoolfunding website maintained by the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, www.schoolfuding.info
Michael A. Rebell is the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity and Professor of Law and Educational Practice at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is also an adjunct Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Previously, Mr. Rebell was the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, and co-counsel for the plaintiffs in CFE v. State of New York, a challenge to the system of funding public education in the State of New York which has established the right of all students in the state to the “opportunity for a sound basic education.” Mr. Rebell has also litigated numerous major class action lawsuits, including Jose P. v. Mills, which involved a plaintiff class of 160,000 students with disabilities. He also served as a court-appointed special master in the Boston special education case, Allen v. Parks. He was a member of the National Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education and a member of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New New York Education Reform Commission.