Academic journal article Education Next

Courtroom Alchemy: Adequacy Advocates Turn Guesstimates into Gold

Academic journal article Education Next

Courtroom Alchemy: Adequacy Advocates Turn Guesstimates into Gold

Article excerpt

Beginning in the late 1960s, and accelerating unabated through to the present, plaintiffs have filed more than 125 court cases questioning the constitutionality of school district and school spending levels. In 2005 alone, high-court decisions were handed down in eight states, including Kansas and Texas, with a decision rendered in South Carolina that has national implications.

Cases in seven more states, including Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nebraska, are now pending decisions concerning issues of adequacy in state funding mechanisms. And legal challenges to state funding mechanisms are not one-off endeavors. Arizona, California, Connecticut, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming are states in which there have been not one, not two, but as many as five or six legal challenges to legislatively determined spending levels.

Much of the litigation, particularly early on, centered on the issue of funding equity. As of 2005, funding mechanisms in 36 states had been challenged on the grounds that interdistrict spending was inequitable. Increasingly, however, cases have focused instead on the overall amount, or adequacy, of funding. Beginning in the 1990s, enactment in virtually every state of learning objectives and curriculum standards provided a new reference point for plaintiffs arguing that funding was inadequate overall. By 2006, the constitutionality of funding mechanisms in 39 states had been challenged on adequacy grounds (see "Judging Money", research, p. 68). Indeed, through the first half of 2006, funding mechanisms in only five states--Delaware, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah--have been spared constitutional challenge.

Few would seek to deny American public school students access to the courts when inadequate school funding threatens their chances for achieving academic, and ultimately economic, success. But contemporary school-finance adequacy litigation goes far beyond seeking equity for the educationally disadvantaged. The movement is becoming a self-serving cause whereby plaintiffs have gained relatively uncontested judicial access to the policy process. Indeed, unsubstantiated claims and unreasonable requests contained in costing-out studies commissioned by plaintiffs have successfully circumvented democratic executive and legislative funding dynamics. The trend threatens to erode public interest in and support for K-12 education policy.

Plaintiff Victories Pick Taxpayer Pockets

Amounts awarded by courts are often substantial. Wyoming and New Jersey are fine examples. Wyoming plaintiffs have returned to court six times and have so far doubled Wyoming's per-pupil spending, elevating it from $5,971 in 1996-97 to an estimated $12,422 for 2006-07. Beginning teacher salaries, for those with master's degrees, rose in constant dollars from $24,402 in 1997 to $32,451 in 2004, a 33 percent increase. The average student-teacher ratio declined from 15 to 1 in 1993 to 13 to 1 in 2003. In spite of dramatic increases in spending, Wyoming student achievement levels in math as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have either been stagnant or dropped relative to the United States as a whole.

While Wyoming is a poster child for litigant success, it is not all that extreme. New Jersey per-pupil spending, in response to Robinson v. Cahill and Abbott v. Burke, has been elevated in constant dollars from $4,688 in 1970, when the litigation began, to $13,229 in 2003. So-called Abbott districts, those that receive the largest share of new state funding, in select instances spend in excess of $19,000 per pupil, a figure that rivals day-student tuition at many of the nation's most prestigious independent schools.

How Much Is Adequate?

The underlying question seems reasonable enough: after all, if Johnny's school is underresourced, how can Johnny be expected to meet the state's expectations for learning? …

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