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SPOTLIGHT ON THE STATES: The Court Battles Continue

Today, Ohio, New Hampshire and New York are three of several states in litigation as a result of “adequacy” claims filed against their state education funding systems. Over the past three decades, lawsuits challenging state methods of funding public schools have been brought in 43 of the 50 states. Most of these states must balance an education funding system that provides sufficient funding within each school district against the imbalances that result from reliance on local property taxes to fund education.

Spotlight on Equity Across School Districts in an Ohio Supreme Court Case

In late March 2002, the mediation ordered by the Ohio Supreme Court in a case challenging the constitutionality of Ohio’s school funding system fell apart when the chief mediator announced that a compromise was impossible. The case, DeRolph v. State of Ohio, first filed in 1991, was then placed back on the Court’s active docket.

In Ohio, the state government receives most of its operating revenue from income and retail sales taxes, but schools are heavily dependent on property taxes. In DeRolph, plaintiffs argued that the state’s school financing system hurts those school districts with the lowest property valuations per pupil. These were typically districts in rural and underdeveloped areas or in communities where industries have become obsolete. Fuel was added to the fire when a study documenting enormous inequities among schools in Ohio revealed that Ohio was far behind other industrial states in the level of state funding for public education.

The state legislature failed to respond to the report, leading to the creation of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding (E & A Coalition). Representing more than 550 Ohio school districts, the Coalition filed suit against the state school financing system in 1991.

In September 1996, the Ohio Supreme Court found the school funding system unconstitutional and gave the state government one year to provide a “complete systematic overhaul” of the way schools are funded. Seven years later, no agreement has been reached. As a result, the case is once again up for consideration before the court.

New Hampshire’s Long Road to an Adequate Education

In series of cases dubbed Claremont IClaremont II, and Claremont III, New Hampshire has progressed through a similar quagmire to remedy inequalities within its education system. In the original Claremont School District v. Governor, the New Hampshire Supreme Court held that the New Hampshire Constitution “imposes a duty on the State to provide a constitutionally adequate education to every educable child and to guarantee adequate funding.”

In Claremont II, the New Hampshire Supreme Court struck down the state education funding system as unconstitutional because taxpayers in less wealthy school districts paid as much as four times the local property tax rate of those in wealthier districts. Claremont III again deemed unconstitutional a state-proposed funding system with a statewide education property tax levied at a uniform rate, along with a phase-in provision for wealthy communities.

In January 2002, the Supreme Court split the financing question into two issues: 1) New Hampshire’s definition of adequate education; and 2) New Hampshire’s latest attempt to develop a constitutional funding system. The Supreme Court will deal with the definition of an adequate education and the New Hampshire Superior Court will deal with the funding system question. On April 11, 2001, the New Hampshire Supreme Court again declared unconstitutional the state’s education system for failing to establish sufficient standards of accountability, which the court held is “part of the State’s duty to provide a constitutionally adequate education.”

Campaign for Fiscal Equity Challenges New York’s Education Finance System

Campaign for Fiscal Equity Inc. (CFE) is a non-profit corporation that seeks to reform New York State’s education finance system in order to provide equal resources for all students in the state. CFE represents a coalition of community groups, school boards, parents and advocacy groups. The organization was founded in 1993 with the goals of launching a constitutional challenge to the New York school finance system, promoting dialogue on school funding reform and conducting policy research on equal access to basic education around the country.

In 1995, the Campaign received a major boost when the New York State Court of Appeals gave the organization the green light to continue its constitutional challenge to the education finance system as long as it could establish a correlation between “funding and educational opportunity.” In January 2001, Justice DeGrasse ruled in favor of CFE, holding unlawful New York State’s system of providing education funding to New York City’s schools and ordering the state to reform the school funding system by Sept. 15, 2001. The Court found in part that New York State had violated the state constitution by failing to “provide the opportunity for a sound basic education to New York City public school students.” The state appealed the ruling in February, thereby delaying implementation of the order. In October 2001, the state Supreme Court heard the appeal and a decision is expected shortly.

New Web Site Offers ACCESS to State Funding Litigation 

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity has created a new Web site called ACCESS (the Advocacy Center for Children’s Educational Success with Standards). ACCESS represents a national initiative “to strengthen the links between school finance litigation, public engagement and the standards-based reform movement.” The Web site highlights important school funding cases in every state, including the New York, New Hampshire and Ohio rulings and state movements toward fiscal equity such as the new Maryland school funding system. ACCESS seeks not only to inform how litigation and public engagement can be linked but also how to develop models for implementing fiscal equity across the country.

Campaign for Fiscal Equity
ACCESS Web site


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