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. …