In the early 1800s, the citizens in many American towns established local systems of public education. Yet by the beginning of the twentieth century, K–12 education had become a responsibility of the states (Strang 1987, 354). The federal government's role, conversely, has always been small. Even though education is discussed by presidential candidates and Congress periodically passes major legislation, no more than 10 percent of public school revenues has ever come from the federal government.1 Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that education is not a fundamental right guaranteed in the federal Constitution.2
The action in public education, especially in the financing and administration of American schools, is in the states and the more than 14,000 school districts they have created. Unlike the federal Constitution, nearly all the state constitutions explicitly provide for a free education. The language in the Idaho constitution is typical: “It shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” (article 9, section 1).3 By the early 1990s, education financing systems of most of the states had been challenged in state courts, with about half found in conflict with the state constitutions (Odden and Picus 2004). In nearly all these cases, the courts addressed the question of whether constitutional guarantees were satisfied when education spending varied widely across the state's school districts.
As we will show, state governments responded by changing how they finance public education. State systems that were nearly totally re-