Twenty-Five Years after Rodriguez: School Finance Litigation and the Impact of the New Judicial Federalism

By Reed, Douglas S. | Law & Society Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Twenty-Five Years after Rodriguez: School Finance Litigation and the Impact of the New Judicial Federalism


Reed, Douglas S., Law & Society Review


This article examines the impact of state-level school finance litigation conducted in the wake of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. State supreme courts have handed down decisions in 36 states since the Rodriguez decision in 1973. The article looks at how these decisions have affected the distribution of educational resources in eight states-five states in which school finance activists have won and three in which they lost. The author shows that state supreme courts can have a significant impact on both the equity of school finance systems and their adequacy. This finding rebuts scholars who have recently argued that courts, acting alone, cannot achieve significant social or political change in the face of public opposition. The article also explores why some state supreme courts are more successful than others, putting forward a policy-centered model of judicial efficacy that takes into account the peculiarities of school finance as a policy issue.

Nineteen ninety-eight marks the 25th anniversary of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that helped spark a revolution of sorts. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) declared that severe financing inequalities among school districts in Texas did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. These inequalities stemmed primarily from large property value differences among school districts. The differences meant that property-rich districts could generate significant revenues for education (at relatively low tax rates), while property-poor districts could produce only very small amounts of revenue (while taxing themselves at comparatively high rates). Perhaps the key jurisprudential conclusions of the Rodriguez decision were that wealth was not a suspect classification for purposes of the equal protection jurisprudence and that education was not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. Part of the Supreme Court's expressed rationale for the decision stemmed from its unwillingness to intrude massively on local educational policies-which would surely occur if it decided in favor of the plaintiffs.l Striving to maintain an "appropriate" balance to federalism, the Supreme Court self-consciously distanced itself in Rodriguez from property tax and educational funding issues-historically local concerns.

The irony of this decision is that the U.S. Supreme Court's exercise in judicial restraint at the national level has translated into an expanded judicial agenda for supreme courts at the state level. After Rodriguez, school financing equity activists, realizing that federal courts held little promise for their claims, began to litigate the matter under provisions of state constitutions. Relying on arguments rooted in both state equal protection provisions and on language in state education clauses,2 litigators have pursued these claims to state supreme courts in 36 states.3 One dimension of a broader movement commonly dubbed the "new judicial federalism,"4 this constitutional litigation campaign over school financing has enjoyed mixed success in state supreme courts, winning in 20 of the 36 states where decisions have been handed down by state high courts. These legal victories often have particularly high profiles and sharply focus state legislators' attention on class disparities among school districts. In the wake of these decisions, state legislators have enacted reforms that promise greater educational resources and opportunities to poor school districts in their states.5 The question remains, however, whether these reforms have actually produced the changes sought by equity activists and demanded by state supreme courts.6 This article attempts to answer this question.

Despite nearly 25 years of state supreme court rulings on school finance, neither scholars nor school finance activists have a fully developed understanding of the impact of these rulings. Not only is our picture of the relative changes in school finance after state supreme court rulings underdeveloped, but we also have no clear account of how state supreme courts differ in their capacity to restructure educational financing. …

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Twenty-Five Years after Rodriguez: School Finance Litigation and the Impact of the New Judicial Federalism
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