New Hope for Failing Schools: State Courts Are Remedying the Shame of Inadequate Education Funding

By Kirp, David L. | The Nation, June 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

New Hope for Failing Schools: State Courts Are Remedying the Shame of Inadequate Education Funding


Kirp, David L., The Nation


Education has become a hot political topic. With Democrats and Republicans in Washington warring over policy--Democrats wanting to cut class size, hire new teachers and institute national tests; Republicans pushing for vouchers--the debate over how best to educate America's children will be high on the agenda in the November Congressional elections.

Meanwhile, a little-noticed revolution in public education is already in full swing outside the Beltway. It is being led by as unlikely a group of revolutionaries as one could imagine--state court judges, who have been demanding that the states start delivering an "adequate" education to all their children. For schoolkids, especially the poorest ones, that is excellent news.

This is not the first time judges have been asked to guarantee fair treatment in the schools. Three decades ago, in the wake of the court-led campaign to banish Jim Crow from the schoolhouse, reformist lawyers regarded inequities in the ways in which money is distributed to the schools as the next target for equality-minded jurists. Because public education was mainly paid for by local districts' property taxes, rich communities outspent their poor cousins many times over. It seemed a clear violation of equal protection.

"One dollar, one scholar" became the motto of the litigators, and the Warren Court was their hope. But by the time a challenge to Texas's school finance law made it to the Supreme Court in 1973, it was the Burger Court that heard the case, and this judicial turn to the right made all the difference. Even as Justice Potter Stewart condemned the Texas statute as "chaotic and unjust," his was the decisive fifth vote to uphold the law.

It appeared that school finance reform was a dead letter. But soon enough the issue resurfaced in the states. A handful of state supreme courts, most prominently California's, read their own constitutions as giving all schoolchildren the night to an equal share of education dollars. Still, such equity-minded courts were rarities. Besides, this version of equity was thin gruel for poor schoolchildren, many of them minorities, who needed much more from public schools than their suburban cousins and who lived in cities, where the higher cost of living meant equal dollars, bought them much less.

The alarm bells that went off when an Education Department commission published A Nation at Risk in 1983 prompted policy rethinking across the country. The message that something drastic needed to be done also galvanized the lawyers. "Adequate" education became the new mantra. In 1989 the Kentucky Supreme Court became the first to embrace it.

Kentucky is an unlikely place to launch any social reform movement. Its Constitution, like those of many states, guarantees an "efficient system of common schools," but in a state characterized by its own Governor as "too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash," that guarantee had been meaningless, The wealthiest school district was spending $4,361 on each student., the poorest just $1,767.

Instead of fixating on these numbers, the state judges opted to focus on the whole system--or rather, nonsystem. Other state courts, like New Jersey's, had previously called for an education that let each student become "a citizen and a competitor in the labor market." Kentucky put inadequacy at the core of its ruling.

The court set down guidelines for an adequate education, including state guarantees that students would have the opportunity to develop their talents in "oral and written communication," "governmental processes," "grounding in the arts" and "sufficient self-knowledge." No one could miss the judges' point: "Kentucky's entire system of common schools is unconstitutional ... the entire sweep of the system--all its parts and parcels."

It was an astonishing decision, and Kentucky politicians, confronted with an aroused public as well as tough-minded jurists, quickly responded. …

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