State Policy Innovation in Perspective: Courts, Legislatures, and Education Finance Reform

Article excerpt

Why and when courts will change policy has been the subject of significant scholarly attention, but there has been little effort to integrate this research within the existing research of determinants of state legislative policy change. In this article, the authors incorporate both of these research areas to answer the question of whether policy change will occur through the legislature or through the courts, examining the important issue of education finance reform. To understand and predict this change, the authors characterize the state policy environment as consisting of political, legal, and strategic factors. The authors find that a combination of political and strategic factors influences legislatures and the courts, but that law matters greatly to the courts, particularly state constitutional education clauses. The authors also find that institutional structure influences the degree to which politics matters to the courts.

Keywords: state policy change; state courts; education finance reform

Research on state policy change often characterizes the policy environment as consisting of internal and external factors, such as public ideology and policy adoption in neighboring states. While this framework is broad enough to encompass and allow for the influence of changing information and institutional structure on legislative policy, the models created from this framework fail to account for the fact that in many policy domains those seeking to change policy often resort to courts, and not the legislature, and even then change sometimes fails to occur through either branch of government. Why and when courts will change policy has been the subject of significant scholarly attention, but there has been little effort to integrate this research with the existing research of determinants of state legislative policy change.

In this article, we incorporate both of these research areas to answer the question of whether policy change will occur through the legislature or through the courts. We do so through examining the important issue of education finance reform. This policy domain provides a fitting choice for such an assessment. Education finance reform has been largely left to the states in the aftermath of San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez (1973), the Supreme Court decision that held there is no federal constitutional right to equalized school financing. This issue is critically important because democratic theory suggests and empirical research shows that courts and legislatures can have significantly different influences on the outcome of the policy change and, in particular, education finance reform (Manwaring and Sheffrin 1997; Murray, Evans, and Schwab 1998; Wood and Theobald 2003).

By integrating these two areas of scholarship, we can begin to understand the question of why reform happened in some states, but not in others; and why, in those states with education finance reform, it was court-ordered in some, while in others the legislature enacted education finance reform. To understand and predict this change, we characterize the state policy environment as consisting of political, legal, and strategic factors that would lead to policy change by the courts or by the legislature.

Admittedly, education finance reform has some unique aspects as a state-level policy domain. Education policy is an area that has traditionally been left to state and local control, and local property taxes are usually the primary method of financing education. This in turn can lead to significant inequity. In addition, education policy is also an area in which state judiciaries have played a very prominent role (Wilhelm 2007). However, many policies become subject to the interactive process of legislative and judicial decision making, from criminal sentencing to campaigns and elections. Thus, our findings should be generalizable to a range of issues.

Our article examines findings of past research on state-level policy change, use of litigation, and state-level judicial decision-making. …