The enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind law and a decade-long commitment to standards-based reform by states have pushed education finance back to the forefront of the education debate.
A Spring 2001 analysis by the Education Trust found that only seven states out of 49 have closed the funding gap between rich and poor schools. According to the report, “in 42 out of 49 states studied, school districts with the greatest numbers of poor children have less money to spend per student than districts with the fewest poor children.” The average national gap between highest- and lowest-poverty districts stands at $1,139 per student.
At the state level, litigation and the fear of litigation have largely steered the movement for equitable education funding. Because education is primarily a state and local responsibility in the United States, the bulk of education spending comes from state and local tax revenues. Traditionally, most funding for public schools is raised from local property taxes–a method that inevitably disadvantages students who attend schools in high poverty neighborhoods with low property values.
Even though they pay higher taxes, poorer communities cannot generate as much revenue as neighborhoods that have higher property values. Such inequality has led many low-income communities to bring suit in federal and state courts challenging the constitutionality of their state’s education funding system.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court in San Antonio v. Rodriguez rejected the argument that such funding disparities violate the U.S. Constitution, holding that there is no fundamental, federal right to an education. This decision shifted school finance litigation to the state level, with a series of cases challenging funding inequities under state constitutions.
Beginning in 1989, the notion of the right of a child to an “adequate education” began to expand in legal circles. This concept was based on education clauses that appeared in most state constitutions, but were left out of the U.S. Constitution. These clauses often specify education as a state function and require legislatures to maintain public schools that provide “a thorough and efficient system of common schools” (Ohio), an “adequate education” (New Hampshire), or a “substantially equal educational opportunity” (Connecticut), to name a few.
Today, education adequacy has emerged as a main focus in education reform as Congress, the federal and state court systems, the private/non-profit sector, and state and local governments grapple with this issue.
For a more complete discussion of the education issue, please see New York attorney Michael Rebell’s paper, Educational Adequacy, Democracy, and the Courts.
|Landrieu Amendment Rewards Equitable Funding
Last year, during the debate on the No Child Left Behind Act, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) incorporated an amendment that redirected $650 million to education finance incentive grants which reward states that have a policy of fairly distributing resources among school districts. During debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Landrieu said, “I think we have an obligation, on the federal level, because of the disparity, because of the great inequity, to do what we can to try to level this playing field.” Her amendment represents the first time this program has ever been funded.