The Courts vs. Educational Standards

By Heise, Michael | The Public Interest, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

The Courts vs. Educational Standards

Heise, Michael, The Public Interest

Few aspects of the current school-reform effort rival the prominence accorded to educational standards. The federal government's most comprehensive and far-reaching reform project, Goals 2000, underscores educational standards' key role in a nationwide effort to improve student achievement. Whether the development of educational standards will do so is, as of yet, unclear. It is clear, however, that standards will serve as a catalyst for the next generation of educational litigation.

By converging with emerging legal doctrines forged by school-finance litigants at the state level, educational standards, even voluntary ones, will attract litigation designed to turn standards into legal entitlements. When courts find that funding increases are necessary to meet educational standards, states will be required to provide the additional funding. The new litigation that will follow from the development of standards will thrust the courts further into educational policy making, with the results more likely to benefit lawyers than students.

Setting aside the question of whether the courts ought to be crafting education policy at all, little is even known about whether litigation is an effective mechanism for achieving desired educational policy goals. The courts' influence over schools exploded after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Today, it is difficult to imagine any aspect of schooling not influenced by laws, regulations, and courts. Yet, legal scholars and lawmakers do not fully comprehend the nature, extent, and contours of the courts' profound influence on schools. Indeed, legal impact research on the relation between courts and educational policy is scant, qualitative data thin, and quantitative data all but nonexistent. Despite this substantial void in the research base, the pursuit of educational standards seems certain to stimulate litigation. The inevitability of such a result is unfortunate, illustrating how well-intentioned educational policies and existing legal doctrines can sometimes work at cross-purposes.

State constitutions distorted

The success of courts in using state constitutions to mandate education policy suggests that Goals 2000 will be used to much the same effect, sparking a new wave of education litigation. The state constitution expresses a state's obligation to provide educational services to its residents, and dictates that the legislature possesses plenary authority to delegate this obligation through whatever administrative mechanism it likes. To school-finance litigants, however, state constitutions, particularly education clauses, provide a mechanism to achieve judicially what they are unable to achieve legislatively.

During the 1970s and 1980s, school-finance equity lawsuits sought to equalize per-pupil spending. Traditional equity-based lawsuits asked courts to assess whether per-pupil spending gaps between school districts with high property values and those with lower property values offended state constitutions. In Serrano v. Priest, the California Supreme Court ruled the state's school-finance system unconstitutional because it could not find a compelling reason to justify the gaps in per-pupil spending among school districts within the state. The Serrano decision, an important equity-lawsuit victory, awakened the country to the constitutional dimensions of unequal per-pupil spending.

Since 1989, school-finance litigation has differed in some important respects. Specifically, adequacy-based school-finance lawsuits have replaced equity lawsuits. In adequacy lawsuits, plaintiffs ask the court to assess the underlying sufficiency of the school funding and educational services provided to schoolchildren. Courts now find school-finance systems unconstitutional not because wealthy districts spend more money on their students than do less-affluent districts but because the quality of educational services delivered to students in less-affluent school districts - regardless of per-pupil spending - is inadequate. …

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