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School Finance Litigation

School finance litigation has been pursued as a way for marginalized students to attain equal educational opportunity (Green, Baker, & Oluwole, 2008). It is one avenue, in addition to legislative actions such as ESEA, NCLB, and ESSA (see Chapter 5), that has been used for decades to remedy unequal school funding and establish parity among school districts. Additionally, many of the school finance cases have brought to light deep-seated racial issues that allow educational opportunity gaps to endure (Hinojosa, 2016). Yet, because the U.S. Supreme Court determined that education is not a fundamental right explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution, and therefore wealth-based discrimination is not occurring via funding in school districts (see San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodríguez, 1973), in many states the battle over the imbalance in school funding is still ongoing. States play a central role in school funding; their constitutions explicitly communicate what rights to an education should look like. In the last 40 years, lawsuits on inequitable school funding and educational opportunity have been filed in 45 of 50 states, with plaintiffs succeeding in about 60% of these cases (Rebell, 2017). In 34 of the lawsuits, the question as to whether more funding leads to better education has been clearly established, putting to rest the false myth that more money does not help educational outcomes (Rebell, 2017). Indeed, in many state courts, legislative action has been required to redress inequitable educational opportunities and disparities between low-wealth and affluent districts (Jackson et al., 2016), albeit with mixed outcomes.

In this section we highlight just a few of the many school finance cases that have been argued across the United States. We specifically chose these cases—Serrano v. Priest (1971), San A ntonio Independen t School District v. Rodriguez (1973), Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby (1989), Abbott v. Burke (1985—2011), Rose v. Council for Better Education (1989), Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York (2001—2006), Martinezv. New Mexico (2018)—as many are considered landmark school finance cases related to educational opportunity, occurred in various geographical contexts, and show how over time, the differences in arguments being made—equity vs. adequacy—against inequitable education funding systems. That is, which we discuss below, from the 1970 to the mid-1980s, equity was used to argue that states were responsible for remedying local financing issues to provide all children with a quality education. From the late 1980s onward, since most state constitutions have provisions outlining adequate levels of education that must be provided to children, it was argued that low spending levels in districts meant that the state was not meeting this adequate requirement (Jackson et al., 2016). Some argue that some more recent cases have sought to tackle inequities connected to issues such as race (Hinojosa, 2016). Below we discuss these cases in detail so that school leaders can better understand the historical context in which school funding battles are situated and how, in the current color-evasive, market-driven education context, we may think about school funding systems and what is needed to truly create school systems that are equitably resourced and of high quality.

Serrano v. Priest

The Serrano v. Priest (1971) case was one of the first and widely known school funding equity cases brought to state court. In the case, students and families in Los Angeles County public schools argued that the state’s property tax-based school finance system disadvantaged students in low-income districts and the educational opportunities afforded to them. The California Supreme Court agreed and ruled that the state’s school finance system violated the Equal Protection clause and was therefore unconstitutional. The court went on to order the state to equalize property tax rates and revenues to assist in closing the funding disparities across districts. The ruling was important as it shifted the way schools were funded in California from local to state control. Yet, despite the court’s ruling and the state coming close to achieving equitable per-pupil funding for almost all of its students, two things occurred that turned this progress around. First, in 1978, California residents passed Proposition 13, which froze property tax levels at their 1976 assessed levels, and capped ad valorem tax rates at 1% of cash value at the time of their purchase. Proposition 13 was devastating for California school districts as property taxes now limited the ability to equalize school funding; it would be up to the state to assist districts in achieving equal funding. However, the state did not decide to increase education expenditures and instead actually lowered them, which was the second dagger to the Serrano ruling.

In recent years, California has tried to address school funding by creating a new funding formula that is not based on property taxes and provides additional resources for schools with more students who are low-income, English learners, and/or have a disability (Martin, Boser, & Benner, 2018). The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was authorized in 2013 and, according to the California Department of Education (2019), the new funding formula, which overhauled a system that had been in place for about 40 years, is different as it “establishes base, supplemental, and concentration grants in place of the myriad of previously existing K-12 funding streams, including revenue limits, general purpose block grants, and most of the 50-plus state categorical programs that existed at the time” (n.p.). A recent study by the Learning Policy Institute found that California’s new school finance system is having positive results for academic outcomes and graduation rates across all school districts. And specifically, the additional funding that has been afforded to high poverty districts through the LCFF has led to significant academic improvements for students from low-income families and students of color (Johnson & Tanner, 2018).

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