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Education Reporter

National Wave of School Litigation
Districts Seek Funding from Activist Judges
After Failing to Convince Legislators and Voters
Half of all states now face lawsuits demanding that judges increase public school funding. Typically based on state constitutional provisions mandating public education for all students, such suits represent a new avenue for cash-strapped school districts to gain funding they cannot obtain from the legislature or at the ballot box.

At least 15 states are currently fighting school-funding suits and 10 more have been threatened with litigation, according to the American Association of School Administrators. All but five states have witnessed some kind of legal battle in recent years over what constitutes an adequate education, and some states are gearing up for their second or third lawsuit. (Washington Post, 6-7-04) Taxpayers are dismayed at the prospect of judges raiding state treasuries to force higher spending for certain schools.

How school funding is distributed varies widely by state and even by district, depending on factors such as property tax revenue, voters' willingness to approve tax increases, availability of state tax revenue, the demographics of student populations, and statewide formulas to equalize spending between rich and poor districts.

Lawsuits arguing for education equity between rich and poor districts were filed frequently in the 1980s. The more recent lawsuits, which seek sufficient funding for poor districts rather than parity with wealthy ones, have been facilitated by the reams of data generated to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law. Statistics on failing schools are cited by plaintiffs who blame the schools' poor quality on insufficient funding.

Texas judge wants 'gap' closed

A Texas judge declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional on September 15 after 300 districts brought suit claiming that the state is not providing an adequate education as promised in the state constitution. He also threw out the state caps on property tax rates.

Even though the current system already requires wealthy districts to share portions of their property-tax receipts with poor districts, District Judge John Dietz was persuaded that funding is inadequate because it fails to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

"Texas needs to close the education gap. But the rub is that it costs money to close the educational achievement gap," the judge said. An attorney for the plaintiffs observed that these remarks were unique in the history of Texas school finance litigation, which previously focused on the equitable distribution of money rather than actual student achievement. The state is appealing the decision. (Education Week, 9-22-04)

One problem with this analysis is that no amount of additional funding has ever closed the racial achievement gap on a large scale anywhere in the country.

On May 11, a state judge ordered Kansas to close all its public schools until the state obeys the court's demand to change the way taxpayers' money is spent on education. This ruling is being appealed, and the state supreme court quickly ordered that schools open as usual this fall pending the outcome of the appeal. (Associated Press, 5-19-04)

In Alaska, the teachers union joined parents and districts in filing a suit August 9 claiming inadequate funding. (CNN.com, 8-17-04)

On August 25, Spokane public schools joined a planned lawsuit with many other Washington State districts, which have hired the law firm of Bill Gates's father, Preston Gates & Ellis, to seek more special education funds. Previous state court rulings found a constitutional duty to fund special education properly, and since 1994 the legislature has increased per-student funding by 30%, but apparently that isn't enough to satisfy Spokane and other districts. (Spokesman Review, 8-26-04)

In New York State, a judge has ordered the state to revamp its funding system and come up with an additional $4 billion to $10 billion in school aid over the next three to five years. (CNN.com, 8-17-04) In addition, 17 New York districts have expressed interest in joining Utica's suit filed July 23 to seek increased funding. A Utica official warned that without additional money, 190 jobs would be eliminated.

On April 26, a Massachusetts judge issued a 300-page advisory ruling to dictate the future of education in the Bay State and said the court would retain jurisdiction to make sure its orders are obeyed. Attorneys for some of the poorest school districts in South Carolina are suing the state legislature for billions of dollars in education funds. Nebraska, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Ohio and Maryland face similar school-funding suits.

'Educational adequacy' as goal

"Educational adequacy" complaints have largely replaced desegregation lawsuits as the focus of legal efforts to ensure equality of opportunity between different social and ethnic groups, according to the Washington Post (6-7-04). As federal courts have retreated from ordering busing to promote integration, state courts have started to question whether state governments are living up to their constitutional responsibilities to meet their students' educational needs. Courts have sided with plaintiffs about 70% of the time in funding-adequacy lawsuits in recent years and ordered the states to come up with extra money, education analyst Steven Smith told the Post.

Critics contend that it is up to state legislatures, not courts, to decide the appropriate level of public education. Moreover, spending has not been shown to correlate with educational outcomes. For example, sharply increased school spending in New Jersey over the past four years generally failed to raise academic achievement.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and American Civil Liberties Union attorneys representing 1 million low-income students agreed in August to settle a case complaining of a chronic lack of textbooks and supplies, crumbling buildings and freezing classrooms. Assuming legislative approval, some $188 million would be budgeted this year to address the problems. (sfgate.com, 8-11-04)

In Missouri, several hundred districts have sued to challenge the state's school funding formula. Democratic Governor Bob Holden wanted to raise taxes for public schools but was defeated in the August primary by Claire McCaskill, who pledged in August to persuade lawmakers to revise the state's complex school funding formula without raising taxes. If they don't, she warned, the courts could step in and rewrite the formula without legislative input. (Kansas City Star, 8-25-04)

Occasionally a district lawsuit backfires. Lake View, AR was the source of a suit that led the state supreme court to declare Arkansas' school-funding system unconstitutional. In response, the legislature this year ordered 57 school districts (including Lake View) with fewer than 350 students to either consolidate with or annex into other districts. (Associated Press, 8-20-04)

Idaho court draws the line

Litigation to compel increased funding of public schools that stretched over 13 years finally proved too much for the Idaho supreme court. After a 2001 lower court decision that the funding was inadequate and unconstitutional, the legislature passed an unusual statute authorizing judges to raise taxes for schools, a device to enable the legislators to avoid the political consequences of voting to raise taxes. Seven lawsuits were filed asking judges to raise taxes.

In late August, the Idaho supreme court unanimously voted to strike down the statute. Chief Justice Linda Copple Trout wrote that the statute created "a legislative process in which taxing authority is given directly to a separate branch of government - the judiciary - whose powers and purposes were not meant to involve the taxation of Idaho citizens."

Previous high-profile court actions to raise taxes for school systems in other states helped inspire drafters of the Republican Platform adopted in New York City this year to state: "The self-proclaimed supremacy of these judicial activists is antithetical to the democratic ideals on which our nation was founded."

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