School funding lawsuits are long, frustrating, and crucial for fighting inequality

Ever since the mid-1980s, policymakers and researchers have debated the question of whether public school funding really matters. Yes, some school districts have more money per student, but is it money that helps improve student achievement or is it better teachers? Is it increased spending that boosts test scores or higher-quality curriculum and nicer facilities?

Both Republicans and Democrats have capitalized on the debate when it proved convenient, suggesting maybe schools were getting too much and needed to embrace their favored policy reforms instead.

If this all sounds rather silly to you, you’re not alone. Money pays for teachers, after all. For facilities. For textbooks and technology. Thankfully, decades of research has mounted to push the tiresome debate in a much more constructive direction. A raft of studies now show sustained increases in school funding lead to better outcomes for students, as measured by higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and even higher wages.

It’s still not entirely clear where said funding increases should go. More tutors? After school programming? Music programs or athletics? But spending too little overall, researchers feel confident in saying, will hurt kids’ chances.

Armed with this knowledge, advocates for public schools still face a problem. How do you get state legislators to spend more on education? While school funding is a mix of local, state, and federal dollars, the least amount comes from the federal government. Local communities can raise property taxes, but most cities can only tax their residents so much, and relying on local taxes alone is a surefire way to ensure schools in rich areas are better off than schools in poor ones. States, therefore, play an important role, but as any education activist can tell you, it can be awfully hard to get state lawmakers to act without pressure.

That’s where state school funding lawsuits come in. Since 1973, the Supreme Court has held there exists no federal right to an equal education, so lawyers and advocates have turned to arguments based on state constitutions instead. These cases, where students or parents or even school districts themselves sue for more funding, have emerged as a key way to get more money into low-income schools. “Very few major changes in school funding have ever taken place without judicial action,” said David Knight, a professor of education finance at the University of Washington College of Education.

But these cases take years to litigate, are hard to win, and even if a plaintiff does win, state lawmakers often drag their feet on remedies, leading to even more protracted court battles. As of 2019, as tallied in the book A Federal Right to Education, plaintiffs prevailed in school funding lawsuits in a state’s highest court in 23 states and lost in 20 states.

A new school funding lawsuit, first filed in 2014, will soon be decided in Pennsylvania. The outcome matters not only for families in Pennsylvania but for school advocates nationwide who are trying to decide if these cases still make sense for them to pursue. While the lawsuits tend to be highly state-specific, some legal experts say that judges have signaled something of a retreat in enthusiasm for intervening in public school finance over the last decade, though there are enough counter-examples (like in Kansas and New Mexico) that it can be hard to draw firm conclusions.

“Pennsylvania will be a real bellwether on future cases,” said William Koski, a Stanford professor who focuses on education law and policy. “It’s why it’s being so closely watched by folks around the country.”

Even the defense concedes more money would help Pennsylvania students

One of the key ways states can mitigate school inequity is by distributing more money — reducing reliance on local property taxes to drive dollars into classrooms. But Pennsylvania ranks 45th in the nation for its state share of funding for K-12 education, picking up 38 percent of the costs to educate kids compared to a national average of 47 percent. “Pennsylvania has long been one of the most inequitable states in the country,” said Bruce Baker, a Rutgers University professor specializing in education finance.

“Taxable wealth varies dramatically among school districts,” Katrina Robson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, explained in court. For example, she said, if the small rural Shenandoah Valley district, one of the plaintiffs, taxed at nearly double the average rate in the state, it could still only raise about $4,000 per student. New Hope-Solebury in Bucks County, by contrast, could tax at the average rate, and raise upwards of $21,000 per student.

Matthew Kelly, an education professor at Penn State University, testified that his analysis showed the wealthiest school districts in Pennsylvania spend $4,800 more per student than the state’s poorer districts, and school districts would need an additional $4.6 billion to meet a target for adequate funding set by the state.

In practical terms, funding disparities can lead to situations like some kindergartners only getting 15 minutes of recess per day because a school can’t afford more staffing. Nonwhite students from low-wealth districts are nearly twice as likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers.

Defendants argued that even if disparities exist across Pennsylvania, students still receive more on average than children in other states, as Pennsylvania ranks near the top nationally in per-pupil spending. “The narrative that Pennsylvania drastically underfunds education is simply not accurate,” said a lawyer for House Speaker Bryan Cutler in court.

The lawyer also pushed back on the idea that a judge should intervene in education policy decisions. “You cannot conflate things that are nice to have with what the Constitution requires,” he argued. “Not funding a weight room is not unconstitutional.” In other instances, the defendants criticized the way the petitioner school districts spent the funds they did have, like on iPads instead of on cheaper Chromebooks.

In one of the most staggering but revealing parts of the trial, lawyers for the defense questioned why a school district needed to provide high-quality course offerings to all of its students anyway. “What use would a carpenter have for biology?” a defense lawyer asked. “What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?”

The plaintiffs feel the four-month trial, which ran between November and March, went well, with even the defense’s key expert witnesses conceding that increases in spending can help students.

Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, has long argued that increased spending does not necessarily lead to improved benefits for kids, though his claims have largely rested on decades-old studies with crude methodologies. Hanushek mostly dismisses the more empirically rigorous research that has emerged in the 21st century, so much so that Baker calls Hanushek “education’s merchant of doubt.”

“I believe that money can matter,” Hanushek said in the trial. “It probably, at times, matters. The problem is that we don’t know when it’s going to matter.” He acknowledged that if districts “use our resources well” they can successfully educate low-income students.

A decision in the trial could come later this fall.

These cases turn largely on local political conditions and individual judges

Education historians analyze the history of school funding lawsuits in three waves. The first wave of litigation was relatively short — from 1971 through 1973 — and hinged on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Lawyers successfully made this argument in two federal district courts and in California’s Supreme Court, but the US Supreme Court rejected it in its San Antonio Independent District v. Rodriguez decision.

So lawyers and advocates pivoted. In the second wave of lawsuits, from 1973 to 1989, they made arguments that school spending systems were unconstitutionally inequitable, and relied heavily on state education provisions to make their case. This wasn’t the most successful era, with plaintiffs winning in only seven out of 22 final decisions. Though of those states where plaintiffs did win, according to Koski, per-pupil spending did become more equal across school districts and more targeted to less-wealthy areas.

The third wave began with Kentucky’s Supreme Court decision in 1989 and continues through today. Rather than arguing for “equitable” or “equal” education, advocates have found success arguing that state constitutions guarantee all students an adequate level of education. Framing arguments around minimum levels of “adequacy,” lawyers have found, appeals to political values around ensuring opportunity and seems to offer more deference to those sympathetic to local control arguments. There’s no doubt that politics play a significant role in the success or failure of these trials.

“These cases are all political,” Koski said. “Politics matters more than constitutional language.”

It should be noted, though, that simply winning a case does not mean the actual remedy will be good or will not lead to new problems.

In Washington state, plaintiffs won their state school funding lawsuit in 2012, with the state Supreme Court ruling the legislature had failed to meet its constitutional duty for the state’s 1.1 million students. After initial resistance, this McCleary decision eventually prompted Washington lawmakers to increase funding for public schools by a whopping $7 billion in new dollars over the last decade. However, the McCleary decision also massively expanded funding gaps between wealthy and poor school districts in the state that didn’t exist before, driven by a flawed funding formula lawmakers used to distribute the new aid.

“Everyone did get more money, but the wealthiest districts got the most,” said Knight of the University of Washington. “One takeaway for Pennsylvania is you’ve got to take your time to get the remedy right, you can’t just rush that part.”

In Pennsylvania, advocates have been working to mobilize political pressure on their elected officials in anticipation of a final court ruling. Susan Spicka, executive director of the statewide advocacy group Education Voters of PA, said they’ve always viewed the lawsuit as “one piece of the toolkit” to fix public schools, and are clear that the path ultimately lies with the legislature in Harrisburg.

“The school funding lawsuit is just really helpful to get people to understand who is failing who, because a lot of people will blame their school board or think it’s all on the local level,” she said. “With the lawsuit we can say that in most cases your local school district, that’s already raising taxes, is doing the best it can, but the state is failing on its end.”

Looking ahead at future cases

The lawsuits can be slogs. New Mexico is a state where advocates found success in court but are still struggling with lawmakers to enforce their ruling. “The legislature did take some steps but three years later there’s still a lot to be done,” said Ernest Herrera, a Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney representing the plaintiffs. “Where we’re at is enforcing our judgment, doing discovery, conducting depositions to find how far the state has come and what is still left.” Herrera, who co-filed the case in 2014, acknowledged “it’s been a long battle.”

Even though they can be arduous, it’s hard to imagine the cases will disappear, given how widespread school inequity is nationwide and how strong the research is suggesting increased school funding helps kids.

2018 report released by the US Commission on Civil Rights detailed the persistent school funding inequities that remain between high-poverty and low-poverty districts. “Low-income students and students of color are often relegated to low-quality school facilities that lack equitable access to teachers, instructional materials, technology and technology support, critical facilities, and physical maintenance,” the federal report said. The cases are one of the only strategies that have proven, however imperfectly, to drive billions more in new funding to low-income students.

New state cases continue to be filed and litigated. In 2019, the ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund went to court to reopen a landmark school funding case from 1994. Maryland tried to dismiss the plaintiffs but the Circuit Court for Baltimore City ruled in 2020 that the complaint could continue. In Washington state, education advocates filed a new school equity lawsuit last December, taking on inequitable school buildings, an angle that the earlier McCleary case didn’t focus on. While there have been a few attempts to file new federal school lawsuits in recent years, those cases haven’t proved successful so far, and advocates say the current composition of the US Supreme Court doesn’t bode well for any new revisitation of Rodriguez.

“The position I would focus on now is less about overturning Rodriguez and more about seeking the recognition of a federal right that would protect some form of an adequate education for all children, that would prepare students to be effective and engaged citizens and be college- and career-ready,” said Kimberly Robinson, a University of Virginia law professor specializing in education and public policy. “That said, while yes, I think this adequacy argument is the better one, I still don’t think this current Court with a 6-3 conservative majority would accept it.”

So bumpy state litigation will likely remain. Even if the plaintiffs win in Pennsylvania later this year, the case could be appealed to the state’s high court. Spicka, of Education Voters PA, said they’re prepared for the long fight, and cited the hundreds of people who turned out to rally in support during the four-month trial.

“State lawmakers always pit communities against each other, and this lawsuit was just soul-filling to see rural and urban communities come together to say: Harrisburg, we need you to fund our schools,” she said. “We had immigrants and communities of color standing side by side with rural whites, and there were just no school funding hunger games.”