More School Districts Suing States For Education Funding

In a 1973 landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that education was not a Constitutional right. The case was San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez and was brought by a group of parents who believed the state’s acceptance of huge funding gaps between rich and poor violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Although a state court ruled in the parents’ favor, the high court overturned the decision by a 5-4 vote, declaring that “though education is one of the most important services performed by the state, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The issue wasn’t necessarily settled because the decision didn’t prevent districts from challenging school finance plans at the state level under their own state constitutions – which explains why virtually every state in the nation has at one time been embroiled in a funding lawsuit.

The number of cases has multiplied over the past few years, however, because of state and local governments’ fiscal problems since the Great Recession. Schools in lower-income communities feel the brunt of these budget cuts hurt because their districts obviously don’t generate adequate property-tax revenue and therefore rely more heavily on state funding. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states have school-finance challenges working their way through the courts, while another four recently settled similar legal action.

The most sweeping current challenge is taking place in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry’s brutal cuts have crippled education and other public services. More than two-thirds of the state’s districts sued the state in 2011, arguing that by cutting $5.4 billion, the state failed its constitutional duty to provide adequate public education funding.

Attorneys representing the schools say the action was taken because the financing system in Texas is “hopelessly broken.” Funding lawsuits have been fairly commonplace in the Lone Star state, the latest being the sixth since 1984. The scope of the latest suit, however, says Lynn Moak, a lobbyist for school districts, elevates it above the others.

“It’s a relatively united public education community, which has been rare,” Moak told The Washington Post.

A court decision is expected either in February, although the Texas Supreme Court will probably have the final word.  But even if the school districts are ultimately victorious, the lawsuit probably won’t result in quick and decisive action by the legislature, if events in other states are any indication. (UPDATE: On February 4, District Judge John Dietz ruled in favor of the school districts that the state’s public school funding system is unconstitutional.)

In January 2012, the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously that state lawmakers had to remedy what it declared to be constitutionally inadequate education funding. The legislature was given six years to rectify the issue, but told to generate a $1 billion down payment in 2012, then another $3.4 billion by 2018.

“The legislature can no longer punt on full funding for public education,” Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist commented at the time. “The legislature needs to act immediately to remedy this injustice against our children and students.”

Progress, however, has been slow and many expect the legislature to fall short of the court’s decree. It isn’t clear what the court can do to compel lawmakers to correct the state’s long-standing failure to properly fund education.

A recent ruling in Kansas has run up against similar legislative roadblocks. In January, a three-judge panel ruled that education spending in Kansas was unconstitutionally low – by about $400 million. Even though the ruling merely requires the legislature to follow previously passed spending statures, Republicans lawmakers may try to circumvent the decision by passing a constitutional amendment that would tighten the legislature’s control over budgetary matters.

What riles education advocates in Texas is that many politicians are avoiding a constitutional commitment and continuing to push for harsh austerity measures when recent revenue estimates indicate an upswing in their fiscal outlook. In January, the state comptroller recently announced that the rebounding Texas economy has provided an additional $8.8 billion for the current two-year budget period, plus growth in the next two years. There’s money in the budget to do the right thing, said Texas State Teachers Association President Rita Haecker, that shouldn’t require a funding lawsuit.

“The improving economy gives Texas lawmakers an excellent opportunity to help our local schools,” Haecker said. “It would be extremely short-sighted for state politicians to stick their heads in the sand and falsely plead ‘austerity’ in order to pander to ideological extremists intent on privatizing public schools and sacrificing our future.”