Legal Challenges to Finance Formulas on Court Dockets in at Least 12 States

May 02, 1990 9 min read

By Michael Newman

As educators await a decision in New Jersey’s closely watched school-finance lawsuit, similar legal challenges to well more than a dozen other states’ methods of funding education were under way or under consideration last week.

The New Jersey Supreme Court is expected to rule at any time on Abbott v. Burke, which seeks to strike down the state’s finance system for allowing wide disparities in school funding among districts.

The entire school-funding formula is under challenge in nine states besides New Jersey, and plaintiffs are seeking changes to parts of the funding system in two others.

Victories in Abbott or the other lawsuits would add to the successes scored by advocates of more equal school funding in Kentucky and Texas last year. The Kentucky legislature in March completed a court-ordered redesign of its entire school system, while Texas lawmakers worked last week to meet a May 1 deadline for school-finance reform.

Additionally, prospective plaintiffs in at least five other states are either contemplating or planning to file finance-equity lawsuits.

“I think school-finance lawsuits are becoming more common,” said Marilyn J. Morheuser, the lead attorney in Abbott.

Like others involved in such litigation, however, Ms. Morheuser said finance lawsuits are expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating.

“This is a very uneconomical way to go,” she said. “It’s a very tortuous way to go. It’s not the best way to go. But sometimes, it’s the only way.”

The success of school-finance lawsuits in court depends on such factors as the language of the state’s constitution and the extent of spending disparities among districts. Constitutional provisions calling for a “thorough” or “efficient” state sys4tem of education are generally considered to provide the strongest legal grounding for such challenges.

But as often as not, such suits are filed--or threatened--to force state lawmakers to take up the issue of school-finance equity.

“I expect it will take the continuous pressure of this litigation to get the legislature’s attention,” said Calvin N. Rolfson, the lead attorney for plaintiffs challenging North Dakota’s finance system.

The following is a summary of pending and prospective school-finance litigation.

Alaska. Several districts located within cities and towns are suing the state for more funding.

The state has two separate ways of funding schools. Schools in unincorporated areas receive more state aid than do those in cities or towns. According to a spokesman for the education department, the state provides more funding to unincorporated districts because they have no local government to levy taxes.

The case was filed in 1986.

Connecticut. A year-old suit argues that the state does not provide equal educational opportunity as guaranteed by the state constitution.

Although the suit is primarily intended to challenge racial imbalances between Hartford and its suburban school districts, it is framed as a traditional school-finance case.

The plaintiffs’ brief alleges that urban schoolchildren are being denied “equal educational opportunity” because they have poor-quality schools. And suburban students are denied the opportunity to “associate with and learn from” the minority students in the cities, the brief says.

Indiana. A three-year-old school-finance suit picked up new momentum in January, when dozens of new districts joined the effort.

The original suit was filed in 1987 by the Lake Central school district. More than 51 districts are now plaintiffs in the suit, according to Thomas Roman, superintendent of the Lake Central schools.

Briefs in the case were filed in December in circuit court.

Massachusetts. A suit that had been languishing on the docket for nearly a decade has been replaced with a new case, and plaintiffs said they will seek a trial.

Because the case involves a constitutional issue, it begins at the level of the state supreme court.

The original suit was never tried because the legislature twice adjusted the funding formula to make it more equitable, and the court delayed the case until the effects of the changes could be measured.

But Norma L. Shapiro, president of the Council for Fair School Finance, said that spending disparities among districts have increased since the suit was last dismissed, and that the state’s current fiscal woes makes it unlikely the legislature will provide additional funds.

The state constitution requires only that the legislature “cherish the interests of literature and the sciences.” The Massachusetts Teachers Association has begun a campaign to have that language changed to ensure “equal educational opportunity” for all children without regard to residence.

Michigan. More than 120 school districts are suing the state to remove a “procedural roadblock” to a school-finance suit, according to their lawyer.

The group is seeking the right to use public funds to sue the state. Overcoming this obstacle is the first step toward challenging the state’s school-aid formula, said John Jacobs, the group’s lawyer.

The suit is similar to an unsuccessful one in the 1980’s. But Mr. Jacobs said the legal climate has changed enough to bring the issue before the courts again.

Oral arguments are scheduled in circuit court.

Minnesota. A suit filed almost two years ago is scheduled to go to trial this October, according to a spokesman for the plaintiffs.

The suit, Skeen v. Minnesota, alleges that the state’s funding formula discriminates against poor districts. Their argument focuses on the so-called local-option tax, which they say is illegal because wealthy localities raise more money with it than poor districts do. Ten parents and 52 districts are the plaintiffs.

The lawyer in the attorney gener4al’s office who is handling the case, Mark B. Levinger, said the state’s position “is essentially that there are a number of [funding] systems that are constitutional, and it’s not up to the courts to decide whether this one is better or worse than any other.”

North Dakota. Bismarck v. North Dakota, which was filed in state district court last June, is currently in the discovery process.

According to Mr. Rolfson, the case will go to trial “probably sometime this summer,” he said.

The North Dakota constitution requires that the legislature provide for a “free and uniform” education.

Nine school districts and several dozen parents and students are plaintiffs in the suit.

Oregon. Although their case was dismissed earlier this month by a county judge, plaintiffs challenging the school-funding formula said they will continue their litigation.

“We expected this to happen,” said Joanne Hazel, cochairman of the Coalition for Equitable School Funding. The coalition, which filed the suit, represents 51 school districts.

The state supreme court ruled in 1976 that the funding formula was constitutional, and the judge dismissed the current suit on that basis.

But the funding formula has become more unfair since then, Ms. Hazel argued. The coalition will soon file an amended brief with the county court, she added.

Ms. Hazel noted that Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, President of the Senate John Kitzhaber and Speaker of the House Vera Katz all support the suit.

But Phil Lemman, a spokesman for the state attorney general, said that “there may be a better way to fund the schools, but that does not mean the current system is unlawful.”

Tennessee. A school-finance lawsuit is scheduled for trial in state chancery court this October.

According to Bill Emerson, superintendent of Crockett County schools, “our case is much stronger than the Kentucky case.” Spending disparities are greater, he said, because of a local-option sales tax.

But the constitutional language providing for education “is probably the weakest of any case filed so far,” Mr. Emerson noted. It says only that the state shall “provide, support and maintain” a system of free schools.

Mr. Emerson’s district is a plaintiff in the suit, Tennessee Small School Systems v. McWherter.

A spokesman for Gov. Ned McWherter said the Governor is8drafting a plan “that would include changes and improvements in the way schools are funded.” He added that the state’s funding system was “unfair, but not unconstitutional.”

Partial Suitsel4

In Kansas and Missouri, portions of the finance formulas are under attack, or soon will be.

In Kansas, a group of parents last December filed suit in state supreme court challenging part of the school-finance formula. Their disagreement, however, is with a complex provision in the formula that is unique to the state.

A group of about a dozen Missouri districts plans to file a suit this week against the state over its school-finance formula. The district will ask that the state provide funds for districts based on current enrollment, not the previous year’s.

While those suits moved through the courts, finance-equity advocates in other states were readying legal challenges of their own.

Alabama. Fourteen districts will file a school-finance lawsuit within the next two weeks, according to a superintendent who helped organize the effort.

DeWayne Key, superintendent of schools in Lawrence County, said the plaintiffs will make some unconventional arguments.

The state constitutional language guaranteeing all Alabamans a right to an education is weak, Mr. Key said. So the group will ask that the state’s funding formula be declared to be in conflict with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the equal-protection and due-process clauses of the state constitution, he said.

“It sounds far-fetched,” Mr. Key admitted. In a 1973 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that education was not a constitutional right.

But Mr. Key said the plaintiffs plan to invoke federal law only to revoke a certain clause of the state’s constitution, on which most of their case will be based.

Illinois. A school-finance lawsuit “is very likely” within the next year, according to a professor involved in the effort.

About 20 districts--including Chicago--have joined a coalition seeking to change the state’s school-funding formula. The coalition is currently seeking funding from foundations for the suit, said G. Alan Hickrod, a professor of education at Illinois State University.

The suit’s chances of success are good, he said, because of the wide spending disparities among districts--some districts outspend others by a five-to-one margin--and because of the language in the state constitution, which requires that the legislature provide “an efficient system” of “high-quality” education.

Pennsylvania. A coalition of educators met last week to discuss the possibility of filing a lawsuit, according to the chief lobbyist for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Thomas J. Gentzel said that about 30 school boards “have given approval or have expressed an interest” in filing a suit.

Virginia. Several superintendents are contemplating legal action. The state board of education has called for a study of the school-funding formula.

According to James A. Burns, superintendent of the Pulaski County schools, “there is no doubt that there is inequity” in the state.

Mr. Burns and superintendents from more than 50 other districts have formed a coalition to pressure the legislature to adopt a more equitable funding formula. They are waiting to see the conclusion of the state board’s study--due out in about a year--before deciding whether to take the matter to court, he said.

Wyoming. A group of three districts is seeking to change the state’s school-funding formula.

The three districts may go to court if they are unable to persuade the legislature next year to make the funding formula more equitable, said Mark Higdon, superintendent of schools in Campbell County.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 1990 edition of Education Week as Legal Challenges to Finance Formulas on Court Dockets in at Least 12 States