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Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as High Standards Without Big Lawsuits


High Standards Without Big Lawsuits

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The development of academic standards, an important step toward raising student achievement, could open up states to lawsuits from groups of students struggling to meet the standards or from districts with large numbers of such students. States are especially at risk of a lawsuit if they hold students and districts accountable for meeting the standards--by, for example, preventing low-achieving students from graduating or taking over low-performing districts--without allocating resources adequately or equitably. Although the threat of a lawsuit should not deter states from developing rigorous standards and tough but fair accountability systems, it should serve as a warning to states to examine closely their educational finance systems within the context of their standards and accountability systems.

Academic standards--specific statements about what all students should know and be able to do at certain points in their educational careers--are the states' definition of a high-quality education. All but one of the states have developed or are developing standards because they provide four substantial benefits. First, standards set clear, high expectations for student achievement. Second, they provide a basis to hold students, educators, schools, and districts accountable. Third, standards promote educational equity by demanding that all students achieve at high levels. Finally, standards help guide efforts to measure student achievement, improve teacher training, develop more effective curricula and instructional strategies, and design school systems most conducive to learning.

Despite these benefits, however, standards present two problems to state policymakers. First, many students will not meet the standards, at least initially. When Oregon first rolled out its academic standards, for example, only 25 percent of 10th graders met the mathematics standards, and only 40 percent met the reading standards. What should Oregon and other states do with the large number of failing students?

Second, many schools will not be able to provide students the learning experiences demanded by the standards. For example, one state's 4th grade English standards require students, among other things, to "demonstrate a working knowledge of technology by producing multimedia presentations and by accessing resources through the school's network." This standard, of course, assumes that schools have a computer network and the hardware and software to enable students to create presentations, as well as highly trained teachers who know how to use the equipment. Currently, few schools--especially those in poor districts--have such resources.

In fact, many schools lack the basic resources necessary to renovate aging buildings or to expand their facilities to meet growing student populations. Although the economy is roaring and states are finding more resources for public education, schools are operating from a very deep hole. In 1996, the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated that deferred maintenance, repairs and upgrades for leaky roofs, fire-code violations, and air-quality problems at our nation's schools exceeded $110 billion. Add to this the cost of wiring schools and purchasing computer hardware, software, and other materials called for by standards (for example, lab equipment and art supplies) and the difficulty of implementing standards becomes obvious.

States have begun to hold students accountable for mastering standards: Fifteen states currently prevent students who do not meet academic standards from graduating or being promoted. Similarly, states are beginning to hold districts accountable for student achievement--on a few occasions "taking over" districts with poor student performance--and districts are beginning to hold schools accountable, in some cases replacing entire staffs in low-performing schools.

These high-stakes accountability systems based on academic standards are promising reform efforts designed to ensure that all students succeed in school. But given the stakes, it appears likely that low-performing students and districts will demand that they be given every opportunity, not just an equal opportunity, to succeed.

With the development of academic standards, students and districts can now argue that their state has defined what constitutes a high-quality education and thus must make every effort to ensure that students have the opportunity to receive that education. In the absence of standards earlier in this decade, state courts in Kentucky, North Carolina, and New Hampshire attempted on their own to define a high-quality education in order to determine whether their states were funding their education systems adequately.

Given the stakes, low-performing students and districts will demand that they be given every opportunity, not just an equal opportunity, to succeed.

This effort by the state courts represents a significant departure from previous school finance litigation, which tended to focus on the equity of spending among districts rather than the overall adequacy of funding in the state. During the 1970s, often referred to as the first wave of finance litigation, cases against states challenged the differing amounts of local school district property wealth that schools had available to fund public K-12 education.

The second wave of litigation, occurring during the 1980s, saw a continuation of equity cases. These cases--13 in all--challenged state funding formulas, with a focus on the per-pupil expenditure differences among districts within a state.

Forty-four school finance cases have been litigated in the 1990s. While several can be characterized as "traditional" equity cases, others were filed based on a developing construct referred to as school finance adequacy. With these cases, plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of school funding formulas based on the adequacy of educational resources--including textbooks, classroom technology, teachers, and the school facilities--allocated to districts by the state. The adequacy of resources has been defined not only by quantity but by quality and condition as well.

In 1994, Arizona became the first state to be successfully sued solely on school district disparities arising from the state's formula for funding facilities. In July of this year, the legislature in Arizona adopted a new funding formula that is largely state-funded. The new plan calls for the legislature to appropriate almost $400 million a year to school districts, replacing the traditional tax-backed bonding method used by the majority of the states.

States should not avoid developing and implementing academic standards and accountability systems out of fear of lawsuits. Standards and accountability systems are needed to raise the achievement levels of all students.

States, however, must take actions to lessen the chances of lawsuits from students and districts that are likely to be adversely affected by standards and accountability systems. Although states cannot and should not be expected simply to open their coffers for public education, they clearly can do more to make sure that students have the resources necessary to meet standards. In Quality Counts '98, Jan. 8, 1998, Education Week gave 14 states a grade of C-minus or lower for the adequacy of their resources devoted to education, and 16 states a C-minus or lower for the equity in their spending per student among districts (eight states did not receive a grade because they were unable or unwilling to submit data).

States should consider reserving a portion of school formula aid for individual schools or districts with a high number of students particularly at risk of failing to meet standards. Because these schools and districts face many different challenges--including the poverty of their students, textbook quality, teacher quality, or technological access--states should design flexible programs to help address specific needs. Where there are concerns about the ability of some teachers to provide students with proper instruction to meet adopted standards, states may want to use Kentucky's "distinguished educator" statute as a model. It allows teachers and administrators to receive assistance from a peer deemed to be one of the state's most outstanding classroom teachers.

In addition, states might want to consider working directly with highly impacted districts to establish partnerships with local corporations, foundations, and high-achieving schools and districts. By assisting in the development of partnerships and coalitions, states can help low-achieving districts leverage resources and learn from others.

Finally, states need not work in isolation. Although every state's standards, accountability system, and education finance system are different, states can learn a great deal from states with similar experiences. Moreover, there are many independent organizations that specialize in helping states and districts plan strategically, develop sound accountability systems based on standards, and implement systemic reforms that enable all students to achieve at high levels.

Given the chance, all students can meet high standards. Furthermore, most students, schools, and districts want to be held to high standards. The key for states is to provide the necessary resources, guidance, and incentives to encourage success without being arbitrary or punitive.

Scott Joftus is the director of federal initiatives for The McKenzie Group Inc., an educational consulting firm in Washington. Terry Whitney is a senior policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington.

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Pages 28,32

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