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Conceptions of Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Adequacy

Reforms across the nation to state school finance systems have been focused on simultaneously achieving equal educational opportunity and adequacy. While achieving and maintaining educational adequacy requires a school finance system that consistently and equitably meets a certain level of educational outcomes, it is important to maintain equal educational opportunity in those cases where funding falls below adequacy thresholds. That is, whatever the level of outcomes attained across a school system, it should be equally attainable regardless of where a child lives or attends school or his or her background.

Conceptions of school finance equity and adequacy have evolved over the years. Presently, the central assumption is that state finance systems should be designed to provide children, regardless of where they live and attend school, with equal opportunity to achieve some constitutionally adequate level of outcomes (Baker and Green 2009a). Much is embedded in this statement and it is helpful to unpack it, one layer at a time.

The main concerns of advocates, policy makers, academics, and state courts from the 1960s through the 1980s were to (a) reduce the overall variation in perpupil spending across local public school districts; and (b) disrupt the extent to which that spending variation was related to differences in taxable property wealth across districts. That is, the goal was to achieve more equal dollar inputs—or nominal spending equity—coupled with fiscal neutrality—or reducing the correlation between local school resources and local property wealth. While modern goals of providing equal opportunity and achieving educational adequacy are more complex and loftier than mere spending equity or fiscal neutrality, achieving the more basic goals remains relevant and still elusive in many states.

An alternative to nominal spending equity is to look at the real resources provided across children and school districts: the programs and services, staffing, materials, supplies and equipment, and educational facilities provided (Still, the emphasis is on equal provision of these inputs) (Baker and Green (2009b). Providing real resource equity may, in fact, require that per-pupil spending not be perfectly equal if, for example, resources such as similarly qualified teachers come at a higher price (competitive wage) in one region than in another. Real resource parity is more meaningful than mere dollar equity. Further, if one knows how the prices of real resources differ, one can better compare the value of the school dollar from one location to the next.

Modern conceptions of equal educational opportunity and educational adequacy shift emphasis away from schooling inputs and onto schooling outcomes—and more specifically equal opportunity—to achieve some level of educational outcomes. References to broad outcome standards in the school finance context often emanate from the seven standards articulated in Rose v. Council for Better Education, [1] a school funding adequacy case in 1989 in Kentucky that scholars consider the turning point in shifting the focus from equity to adequacy in school finance legal theory (Clune 1994). There are two separable but often integrated goals here—equal opportunity and educational adequacy.

The first goal is achieved when all students are provided the real resources to have equal opportunities to achieve some common level of educational outcomes. Because children come to school with varied backgrounds and needs, striving for common goals requires moving beyond mere equitable provision of real resources. For example, children with disabilities and children with limited English language proficiency may require specialized resources (personnel), programs, materials, supplies, and equipment. Schools and districts serving larger shares of these children may require substantively more funding to provide these resources. Further, where poverty is highly concentrated, smaller class sizes and other resourceintensive interventions may be required to strive for those outcomes achieved by the state's average child.

Meanwhile, conceptions of educational adequacy require that policy makers determine the desired level of outcome to be achieved. Essentially, adequacy conceptions attach a “level” of outcome expectation to the equal educational opportunity concept. Broad adequacy goals are often framed by judicial interpretation of state constitutions. It may well be that the outcomes achieved by the average child are deemed sufficient. But it may also be that the preferences of policy makers or a specific legal mandate are somewhat higher (or lower) than the outcomes achieved by the average child. The current buzz phrase is that schools should ensure that children are “college ready” [2]

One final distinction, pertaining to both equal educational opportunity and adequacy goals, is the distinction between striving to achieve equal or adequate outcomes versus providing the resources that yield equal opportunity for children, regardless of their backgrounds or where they live. Achieving equal outcomes is statistically unlikely at best, and of suspect policy relevance, given that perfect equality of outcomes requires leveling down (actual outcomes) as much as leveling up. A goal of school finance policy is to provide the resources to offset pre-existing inequalities that otherwise give one child a greater chance than another of achieving the desired outcome levels.

  • [1] As per the court's declaration: “An efficient system of education must have as its goal to provide each and every child with at least the seven following capacities: (i) sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization; (ii) sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable the student to make informed choices; (iii) sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation; (iv) sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness; (v) sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage; (vi) sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and (vii) sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market. Rose v. Council for Better Education, Inc., 790 S.W.2d 186, 212 (Ky. 1989). https://casetext.com/#!/case/ rose-v-council-for-better-educ-inc.
  • [2] See PARCC website at parcconline.org.
 
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