The Movement: Not Policy’s Engine, but It’s ‘on the Train’

By Nancy Mathis — April 26, 1989 10 min read

The renewed emphasis on school-finance issues has begun to revitalize a research community whose interest in, and funding for, the topic had waned.

Two universities, the University of Southern California and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, are considering the establishment of school-finance research centers.

And the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Education Commission of the States have reinstituted a school-finance collaborative that had languished in recent years. The two groups have begun to hold annual meetings with the aim of discussing not only finance questions but their relationship to other education issues.

The first meeting, held last June, convened on the usc campus the tightly knit clique of social scientists and education professors who had been the mainstays of the so-called “equity network” during the first wave of finance litigation in the 1970’s.

“There was universal agreement that school finance was not dead and that there are a lot of tough issues that need addressing,” notes Allan Odden, a professor of education at the California institution and former analyst for the ecs “The equity movement is not the engine on the policy train anymore, but it’s on the train.”

Much of the original research in the school-finance area was generated in university-based research centers. But as the equity issue receded from the national policy agenda during the 1980’s, the foundation funding that had underwritten the work was redirected toward the excellence movement.

Indeed, the Ford Foundation, which had helped provide the intellectual spark and financing that moved equity issues from the theoretical realm into the courtroom, stopped funding such research in 1981.

The foundation spent $30 million between 1969 and 1981, funding not only research efforts but also grants to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, based in Washington, and the Education Law Center, based in New Jersey, for technical assistance in court cases.

Now, researchers contend, the equity movement could really use the help of another major benefactor.

“Frankly, the time has come to pump it up a little bit,” argues James W. Guthrie, professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley and director of Policy Analysis for California Education.

The equity network was “an un4usually tight field,” recalls Stephen M. Barro, president of smb Economic Research, a consulting firm.

Researchers readily shared information and worked together. They not only served as key witnesses in court cases but also helped states draft new funding formulas. A 1981 study by Mr. Odden found that members of the so-called network were active in 11 of 28 reform states.

“That was partly because there was a cause involved, too,” Mr. Barro suggests. “People were not simply acting as researchers but also as advocates trying to promote certain types of reforms.”

That “cause” was equal educational opportunities for all children--a goal that attracted not only education researchers but social scientists, economists, and lawyers into the fold, says Mr. Barro.

Their efforts were rooted in the civil-rights movement’s drive for equality of opportunity in every arena, and in the rights activists’ reliance on the courts and the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection guarantee as a means of ending discrimination.

In 1968, Arthur E. Wise, now director of the rand Corporation’s Center for the Study of Teaching as a Profession, focused national attention on the application of those strategies to education with the publication of his book, Rich Schools, Poor Schools: The Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity.

Mr. Wise’s study advanced the argument that public education was of such fundamental interest to the nation as to fall under the protection of the 14th Amendment.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s line of reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education--which found that the 14th Amendment barred racial inequality in education--Mr. Wise contended that the High Court should also be asked to apply the amendment’s proscription (“No state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”) to financial inequity in education.

Children attending poor schools were being denied equal protection, the researcher argued, because their low-wealth districts could not provide the same educational opportunities afforded students in affluent school districts.

Simultaneously, the University of Chicago law professor John E. Coons and two of his students, William H. Clune and Stephen D. Sugarman, were developing a concept that was to become the finance-reform movement’s guiding legal principle.

That concept--"fiscal neutrality"--held that the quality of public education should not be a function of local wealth.

At the time, districts relied heavily on local property taxes for their rev8enue. State aid, which played a secondary funding role, was usually disbursed on a per-pupil basis without regard to the local wealth of a district.

Equity advocates contended that states violated the principle of fiscal neutrality by permitting wide funding disparities between high-wealth districts, which were able to hire better teachers, buy better equipment, and fund extra programs, and districts with little property wealth, which could afford much less.

In 1971, equity advocates were given their first victory in California’s Serrano v. Priest finance lawsuit. The California Supreme Court ruled in that case that if funding inequities were found to exist between school districts, the state funding method would be in violation of the California and U.S. constitutions. The high court remanded the suit to a lower court for trial on the facts.

Two years later, however, the U.S. Supreme Court dashed the theory of federal protection when, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, it held that education was not a fundamental right under the Constitution.

Although they were deeply disappointed by the ruling, activists nonetheless continued to pursue litigation in state courts, relying on state constitutional provisions that ordered the establishment of public schools and set such requirements as that the state provide a “thorough and efficient” education system.

That tactic proved successful in a New Jersey case, Robinson v. Cahill. In 1973, a few months after the Rodriguez decision, the state supreme court ruled that the state’s funding system violated the “thorough and efficient” clause of its constitution.

“Robinson made it clear that school-finance reform could take place at the state level, even if it necessitated separate suits tailored to the legal and factual details of each offending state,” wrote Mr. Guthrie in a review of the equity movement.

As the finance-reform network’s legal efforts gained momentum, the mere threat of a lawsuit became enough to convince some state leaders that changes were in order.

Between 1971 and 1987, 28 states, 12 of which faced lawsuits, enacted major finance-reform laws, according to research by Mr. Odden.

To date, 42 equity lawsuits have been filed in 32 states, with several states having more than one case, says Michael La Morte, a professor of education at the University of Georgia who recently tallied the cases.

Since 1971, state funding systems have been found unconstitutional by supreme courts in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washel15lington, West Virginia, and Wyoming. In February of this year, the Montana Supreme Court became the latest to make that finding.

Eleven state supreme courts have dismissed equity lawsuits.

But despite their legal victories, the advocates found the realities of negotiating equalization in the legislative arena much more difficult. Equal revenue for equal tax “effort,” the equity advocates’ goal, became subject to political bartering and trade-offs between education groups and politicians, according to a study on the impact of the equity effort.

The study found that in some cases researchers were the main advocates of equity while teachers, administrators, and board members from low-wealth, high-tax districts were willing to trade greater equity in return for higher salaries, tax relief, and maintenance of local control.

In other cases, Florida specifically, state leaders used pressures for tax relief to develop coalitions for school-finance reform.

“Reform is more a matter of political organization than it is of principle or technical expertise,” concluded the study--by Patricia R. Brown, a former professor of education at the University of California-Berkeley, and Richard F. Elmore, professor of education at Michigan State University.

The success of the equity efforts of a decade ago is still much debated.

Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University, is among those who believe that the movement achieved gains. There has been “gradual, incremental progress” toward fiscal equity, he maintains, even when the attention of the education community was focused on other issues.

According to the Stanford researcher, a state should be considered equitable if at least 85 percent of its students are in districts among which the spending differential is no more than $300 per student. Under this classification, states such as Texas, California, and Florida, where legislators may do an extensive finance overhaul this year, could be characterized as having attained equity.

Mr. Kirst dismisses comparisons that cite only the per-pupil gap between the highest-spending and lowest-spending districts in a state as oversimplified and misleading. “It doesn’t mean we’ve hit nirvana,” he says of changes in states’ finance formulas. “But we’re not standing still in the water.”

The opposite conclusion, however, was reached by one Washington consulting firm that studied the status of the equity issue between 1981 an 1988. “The state of fiscal equity nationwide is much the same as it was eight years ago,” said the study by Decision Resources Corporation.

Other analysts are even less sanguine, contending that the equity movement did not simply tread water in this decade, but began to sink--a reality that they say underlies the recent drive to bring it to the surface again.

Equity advocates, they say, nowface the same central question that was asked of their predecessors but never satisfactorily answered: Does money really buy better education?

Although every equity lawsuit and every legislative debate has been based on the premise that money does make a difference, no one has ever been able to produce convincing evidence of that relationship, Mr. Barro says.

No one has been able to argue, he notes, that a district that spends twice as much per student doubles the quality of education it provides or doubles its student-achievement level.

“Beyond a certain level, you don’t buy a better education,” argues William Kirby, commissioner of education in Texas. “You don’t necessarily have better learning because they have Astroturf on the football field.”

Mr. Guthrie, in his retrospective on the equity movement, points out that attorneys and researchers in the initial finance lawsuits were confronted with troubling evidence on that point in the groundbreaking 1966 study by the University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman, who analyzed attainment data on students in desegregated and segregated schools.

The Coleman findings were interpreted--wrongly, Mr. Coleman has said--to mean that school resources made little difference in student achievement. Achievement, according to the study, was most closely linked to the socioeconomic background of the student.

To counteract those findings, finance-reform attorneys and researchers bombarded the courts with figures, statistics, and analyses designed to create an “impression of staggering technical complexity,” according to Mr. Guthrie’s report.

Amid such confusion, finance-reform proponents hoped judges would conclude that money did indeed make a difference.

“Everyone in the world behaves as through money makes a difference,’' argues Mr. Wise. “Rich districts are happy to have lots of money; poor districts complain they do not have enough.”

It is a matter of common sense, the researcher maintains. And when judges rely on their common sense, he says, they rule in favor of the plaintiffs.

The “Unfinished Agenda” series, which concludes with this report, has been supported by the Exxon Education Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 1989 edition of Education Week as The Movement: Not Policy’s Engine, but It’s ‘on the Train’