Beyond School Finance: Refocusing Education Reform Litigation to Realize the Deferred Dream of Education Equality and Adequacy

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ABSTRACT

The academic achievement gap between poor, minority students and their wealthier white peers has been one of the most troubling and persistent policy problems in the United States throughout its history. For the past forty years, education reformers have turned to the courts to increase educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children by increasing their access to funding. Success in court has been mixed. While the Supreme Court's decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez foreclosed the possibility of a federal right to equalized education expenditures, education reform plaintiffs in many states have been able to secure a state constitutional right to equalized education funding. Yet, despite these judicial victories, education reformers have failed to achieve their ultimate goal of equalizing educational opportunity. A substantial achievement gap that cuts along racial and socioeconomic lines still exists. Thus, the focus on disparities in education expenditures appears misplaced.

This Comment proposes that litigants should redirect their attention to challenging inequitable or inadequate distributions of skill-based education inputs at the local level. This new approach is superior to the current focus on school finance challenges because researchers have increasingly found that skill-based inputs, such as teacher quality, are substantially related to improved academic outcomes. The approach this Comment proposes is also superior to finance suits because courts should be more receptive to these locally focused challenges, which raise fewer justiciability concerns than school finance suits. Accordingly, these new claims have the potential to lead to greater success in the courtroom and the classroom.

INTRODUCTION

Education inequality and inadequacy have plagued American society for years in a phenomenon that is commonly referred to as the achievement gap. This academic achievement gap cuts along racial and socioeconomic lines, and it appears to be growing wider. Poor, minority students continue to perform academically at much lower levels than wealthier, white students. While publicly provided education has traditionally been seen as an equalizing force between the rich and poor, analysis of the achievement gap suggests that the current public education system is having the opposite effect. Although poor black and Hispanic students often enter school less prepared than their white peers, the gap between these groups actually increases over the course of a student's academic career.

The idea that the achievement gap widens while students are receiving their formal education seems counterintuitive. However, it becomes less surprising when one considers that poor, minority students generally are taught by the least qualified teachers and are put in classes that teach the least challenging curriculum. The resulting achievement disparity is shocking. As one education policy organization observed, "17-year-old African American and Latino students have skills in English, math, and science similar to those of 13-year-Whites.

Education reformers have often turned to the courts for help in closing this 8 achievement gap. In pursuit of this goal, reform-oriented plaintiffs have had an almost single-minded focus in their litigation over the past forty years-increasing the amount of funding available to educate poor, minority students. However, their dogged persistence has failed to achieve equity and adequacy, 10 despite numerous judicial decisions in their favor. Minority students in the twelfth grade still perform academically at the level of white students in the 11 eighth grade. This is true even in states where education reform plaintiffs have won major judicial victories that led to increased education spending for 12 poor, minority students.

The fact that the achievement gap persists in states where school finance litigants have won judicial victories suggests that more money does not ensure greater educational outcomes. …

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