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Challenges Confronting High Schools: Adequacy And Equity

At the heart of the quest to make every child a graduate is providing every student access to an adequate education. However, forty-nine years after Brown v. Board of Education, many students are still receiving inadequate and inequitable educations. Achievement gaps between white students and black and Hispanic students continue to grow. Students in our nation’s most urban and rural schools have higher dropout rates and lower achievement levels than those in suburban schools.

In an age where education is the key to having a competitive, productive society, providing every student with the opportunity for educational adequacy and equity is more important than ever. Ensuring this opportunity is a shared responsibility in which local, state, and federal governments are all accountable. The federal government must provide adequate funding targeted to those students most in need so that state and local governments have the ability to implement educational reform. The future of our children and our nation demands it.

Background on Adequacy and Equity Education Reform

Historically, the majority of education reform efforts have taken place in the courts. These efforts are commonly thought of as occurring in three separate waves:

  • First Wave, 1960–1972: The earliest attempts at school finance reform focused on the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, which affirms that “No State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Plaintiffs in these cases argued that state school finance systems violated this clause. Ultimately, these efforts to overturn school finance systems were unsuccessful.1
  • Second Wave, 1972–1988: Litigants turned to state constitutions as vehicles for reforming school funding systems. Several of these cases were successful; in thirteen states, the state supreme courts found that the current school financing systems violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.2
  • Third Wave, 1988–present: In the third wave of school finance litigation, litigants employed state equality guarantees as a means to challenge state funding systems. This wave represents two major developments in the area of school finance litigation. First, states began to focus on adequacy in addition to equity. Second, several states redefined the constitutional requirement of a minimum level of education to that of a required “quality” education.3

From Equity to Adequacy

New Jersey, Washington, and West Virginia had some of the earliest adequacy rulings, but the major shift from equity to adequacy came in 1989 in the Kentucky case Rose v. Council for Better Education.4 In Rose, the state Supreme Court outlined guidelines for an adequate education that would provide students with the opportunity to develop skills in at least seven main areas. These areas ranged from “sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization” to “sufficient levels of academic and vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states in academics, and in the job market.” As the issue of educational adequacy gained attention in other states, courts relied heavily on this decision when issuing their rulings.

Reform Today
The shift in focus from financial equity to educational adequacy gives rise to a unique set of questions:

  • What is the case for successful educational reform today?
  • What are the components of an adequate education?
  • What are the strategies and mechanisms for implementing guidelines for an adequate education?

Currently, there are twenty-one states involved in school funding cases; this includes a continuum of cases, ranging from those in which plaintiffs recently filed suit to those in the process of implementing costing-out studies and other remedies ordered by court decisions.5Massachusetts6 and South Carolina are two of the states currently involved in equity and adequacy cases.

  • Massachusetts: In Hancock v. Driscoll, plaintiffs charged the state for inadequacies in “number and quality of teachers and other staff; class size; curriculum; professional development; and libraries.” The case went to trial in June 2003 and is expected to conclude in October or November 2003.7
  • South Carolina: In Abbeville County School District v. The State, nearly half of South Carolina’s ninety-one school districts filed suit against the state in 1993, alleging that its school finance system violated state and federal constitutions, which guarantee students a precisely defined set of skills and a fundamental knowledge base. Presently in the elementary stages, this trial is expected to continue through January 2004.8

Nebraska and North Carolina are also presently involved in equity and adequacy cases. Additional cases are expected to emerge in both Missouri and North Dakota.

In other states where school funding litigation has been concluded, efforts are focused on defining an adequate education. States like New York and Arkansas are working to define an adequate education via costing-out studies. There are two methods employed in conducting a costing-out study:

  • The Empirical Method identifies school districts that have achieved a certain level of student success. The average expenditure level for these districts is used to estimate the level that would be necessary to provide comparable resources in other areas of the state, thus achieving a similar level of student performance. Differences in cost of living and number of students in need of special education services are controlled for in these calculations.
  • The Professional Judgment Method employs a panel of educators who identify the specific “basket of educational goods and services” necessary for students to meet a predetermined adequacy standard. These goods and services include every component necessary for students to receive an adequate education, such as an appropriate variety of course offerings, safe and sufficient school facilities, and after-school programs. Once the panel identifies the necessary components of an adequate education, an economist determines the cost of obtaining these goods.9

A Massachusetts business group organized the first costing-out study in 1991. Since then, twenty-nine other studies have been implemented in twenty-four states, including four that are currently underway:

  • New York: Using the professional judgment method, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity will employ a panel of educators to identify the specific “basket of educational goods and services” needed in order for New York’s students to meet state standards, and then an economist will determine the cost of providing them. This action is aligned with the court orders in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, a landmark school finance case.11
  • Kansas: Kansas’ Legislative Coordinating Council hired a group of economists to conduct a costing-out study to determine the cost of providing each Kansas student with an adequate and constitutional education. The study, released in May 2003, revealed that Kansas needed to increase K–12 funding by approximately 8 percent. This study used both the professional judgment approach and the empirical approach.
  • New Jersey: The New Jersey Department of Education created a “costing-out model” in 1996. The model was intended to determine the cost of a constitutionally sound education based on a hypothetical school district. Employment of the model found that the state’s thirty poorest districts already had sufficient funding, and that even the state’s highest performing suburban school districts were spending wastefully.12
  • Washington: The Rainier Institute, a Seattle think tank, released the results of Washington’s costing-out study on April 3, 2003. The study, titled “What Will It Take?” sought to develop and cost out a Quality Education Model (QEM) for Washington State; the model included: “teacher salaries competitive for the Far West region; smaller class sizes; more support staff; and full-day kindergarten throughout the State.” The findings revealed that an additional $1.7 billion is required if students are to reach the academic goals established by state and federal legislation.

In addition, Maine, Kentucky, Maryland, and New Jersey have already begun to implement components of an adequate education.

  • Maine: Beginning in 1997, the Maine legislature shifted its funding focus from equity to adequacy. The legislature passed Learning Results, a set of statewide learning standards in eight disciplines that schools must ensure all students meet. The state Board of Education then costed out a method of funding to provide the resources necessary for students to meet the standards, after which the state initiated a phase-in plan for the adequacy model.14
  • Kentucky: In Rose v. Council for Better Education, the Kentucky Supreme Court ordered the General Assembly to reform the tax system and to allocate sufficient funding in order to provide each Kentucky student with an adequate education. In defining an adequate education, the court established a framework of seven learning goals.15 In 1990, the legislature enacted a comprehensive package of education reforms and connected those reforms to the court-ordered funding reforms and learning goals. After funding cuts threatened full implementation of adequacy reforms, the Council reconvened in early 2002 and filed a lawsuit against the state in September of 2003. 167 school districts out of 176 joined the case, which is currently in process.
  • Maryland: In 1999, Maryland created the Thornton Commission, a bi-partisan, 27-member team, to provide recommendations to the legislature on how the State could “ensure adequate school funding, reduce funding inequities among school districts; ensure excellence in school systems and student performance; and provide a smooth transition for recommended changes.” The Commission sponsored a costing-out study which defined the components of an adequate education and determined the level of funding necessary to implement it.

In 2002, the Commission recommended that the State restructure its finance system and increase, over five years, an additional $1.1-billion in its annual support for public schools. Yet, due to a slowed economy, the governor included only a small increase in school funding in his proposed budget and postponed consideration of the Commission’s recommended funding and structural changes. Yielding to the pressure of multiple advocacy organizations, the Maryland Senate passed a bill to adopt the Commission’s finance system reforms. However, the final bill included a provision that requires both legislative chambers to approve a joint resolution in 2004 to affirm that the state has the fiscal resources to fund scheduled increases. Without this resolution, the increases will again be put on hold.16

  • New Jersey: In Abbott v. Burke, the state Supreme Court ordered a comprehensive set of education programs and reforms to close the achievement gap between urban students and their suburban counterparts. In 2002, New Jersey established the Abbott Implementation and Compliance Coordinating Council to implement the reforms mandated by the court.17 However, the council disbanded a short time later due to a shortfall in state revenues.

Federal Legislation

Although federal legislative bodies have given little attention to educational adequacy and equity, awareness about this issue is gaining momentum at the national level. Representative Chaka Fattah (PA) spearheaded this effort by introducing the Student Bill of Rights.

Introduced in January 2003, the bill is based on the premise that the United States must overcome the problem of inequitable and inadequate state public school systems in order promote the nation’s political and economic well-being. The bill asserts that the standards and accountability movement will succeed only if schools have access to the educational resources necessary to enable students to achieve.

The purpose of the bill is to further NCLB (2001) and The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) by holding schools responsible for providing education resources and to achieve equity and adequacy across states. The bill outlines national requirements regarding access to educational opportunity and state accountability; these requirements include high quality classroom teachers, rigorous academic standards, and small class size.


1 Verstegen, D. A., and Whitney, T. (1997.) “From Courthouses to Schoolhouses: Emerging Judicial Theories of Adequacy and Equity,” Educational Policy 11(3).
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Overview and Inventory of State Education Reforms: 1990 to 2000. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education/Institute of Education Sciences.
5 Molly A. Hunter, Project Director/ACCESS Project.
6 Council for Fair School Finance, Inc., October 3, 2003, available online at:
7 Advocacy Center for Children’s Educational Success with Standards, October 15, 2003, available online at
8 Advocacy Center for Children’s Educational Success with Standards, August 14, 2003, available online at
9 Campaign for Fiscal Equity, July 23, 2003, available online at
10 Molly A. Hunter.
11 Campaign for Fiscal Equity.
12 Advocacy Center for Children’s Educational Success with Standards, October 15, 2003.
13 Ibid.
14 Maine School Funding 2000 Update, available online at
15 Ibid.
16 Advocacy Center for Children’s Educational Success with Standards, November 4, 2003, available online at
17 Education Law Center, available online at

Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.