Rethinking Judicial Activism and Restraint in State School Finance Litigation

By Obhof, Larry J. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Judicial Activism and Restraint in State School Finance Litigation


Obhof, Larry J., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


I.   THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION                    570
II.  WHY LITIGATION? A LOOK AT THE POLITICS
     OF SCHOOL FINANCE                              573
III. SCHOOL FINANCE LITIGATION: A
     BRIEF OVERVIEW                                 576
A.   The Search for Equity in School Finance        576
B.   The Shift from Equity to Adequacy in
     School Finance Litigation                      578
C.   The "Third Wave"                               581
D.   What are the Results of School
     Finance Litigation?                            584
IV.  A LOOK AT RECENT CASE LAW                      585
 A.  School Finance as a Nonjusticiable Issue?
     Committee for Educational
     Rights v. Edgar                                586
 B.  Activism [and Equity] in Vermont--Brigham v.
     State                                          590
 V.  JUDICIAL ACTIVISM OR JUDICIAL
     ABDICATION?                                    593
VI.  DEMARCATING THE LINE FOR COURT INVOLVEMENT
     IN SCHOOL FINANCE                              597
 A.  Is there a Middle Ground? Ohio's Search
     for Adequacy                                   598
     1. Balancing States' Responsibilities
        and Local Control                           603
 B.  The Benefits of the Middle Ground
     Approach                                       605
VII. CONCLUSION                                     606

Although state and local governments devote significant resources toward primary and secondary education, more than forty states have faced some form of litigation aimed at increasing school funding. Such cases have focused on the interdistrict inequalities that stem from states' reliance on local property taxes and, more recently, on deprivations of various constitutionally required levels of educational opportunity. While it sometimes proves difficult for courts to properly balance the principles of judicial review and judicial restraint, few areas have been so vexing as school finance litigation. Indeed, these cases are notable not only for their practical impact but also for their jurisprudential extremes. Some courts have been hesitant to provide even adequate judicial review, while others have seemed almost uninhibited in their willingness to act as quasi-legislatures that set educational goals and states' fiscal policies. This Article examines the various approaches taken by state supreme courts in deciding school finance cases and rejects both jurisprudential extremes in favor of a more moderate approach that better balances the principles of judicial review and judicial restraint.

I. THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION

The establishment and maintenance of schools is one of--if not the--most important functions of state and local governments. (1) Since the very founding of the Republic education has been seen as both a private and a public good. The United States Supreme Court acknowledged in Brown v. Board of Education that education is central to democracy and the success of civic republicanism. "[Education] is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities.... It is the very foundation of good citizenship." (2)

Why is education so important? The economic benefits that a society gains from having well-trained and educated workers are well known. (3) Educated citizens are also better able to choose--and serve as--responsible and knowledgeable public officials, and citizens who are informed of their rights and responsibilities serve as a check against governmental abuse. Perhaps most importantly, though, the American social system rests on two goals that require access to education: the "melting pot" that absorbs diverse populations into a pluralistic society and the upward mobility that allows us to overcome class barriers. (4) State and local governments recognize the importance of these factors and therefore devote significant resources to education finance. Education budgets are staggering, and such expenditures make up the bulk of both state and local outlays. …

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