School & District Management

Lawsuits Say States Fail to Meet K-12 Funding Duties

By Sean Cavanagh — January 17, 2012 6 min read
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Even as they struggle to climb out of deep financial holes, states are facing lawsuits that contend they don’t meet their constitutions’ requirements to provide sufficient funding to districts and fail to provide resources for disadvantaged schools and student populations.

Ongoing or recently decided legal battles in Colorado, Texas, Washington state, and elsewhere underscore the challenges confronting states that have been battered by the extended economic downturn and are only beginning to see their revenues improve. The cases also highlight the political and ideological divides over school funding in many states, with some governors and lawmakers choosing to balance budgets by making deep cuts in spending—including for K-12—rather than raise taxes.

One of the more dramatic fights is taking shape in Texas, where four separate lawsuits—brought by an assortment of poor, middle-income, and wealthy districts, along with advocacy groups—have been challenging different aspects of the school finance system. Those cases are playing out in the shadow of deep cuts, more than $5 billion by some estimates, that lawmakers imposed last year on the state’s schools—reductions that school officials say have laid bare the flaws in the current system.

Although the outcomes of lawsuits in a number of states are not likely to be known for some time, the cases could result in courts’ directing legislatures to make fixes to school finance systems, as was the case in Washington state.

As states continue to limp through a slow economic recovery, and many state leaders continue to vow to hold the line on spending, they are likely to face an increasing number of legal challenges, said Michael A. Rebell, a lawyer who represented New York City schools in a lawsuit challenging the New York state school funding system and who has consulted in other, similar cases.

He believes the courts will be obligated to ensure that state policymakers are financing schools to the levels required by their constitutions, but judges also may be more cautious about suggesting remedies so that they don’t overburden state budgets.

While courts have recognized that “constitutional rights don’t get put on hold because there’s a recession,” Mr. Rebell said, “judges are clearly sensitive to the lengths and depths of the current recession. ... Courts don’t live in a vacuum. They’re aware of the difficulty states are having.”

At least a dozen states are facing lawsuits that challenge some aspects of their funding systems, estimates Mr. Rebell, who is now the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, at Teachers College, Columbia University, a nonprofit organization that advocates for fair funding across districts.

Texas Showdown

Legal and political debates over school funding are especially acute in Texas, where legislators, faced with a huge budget shortfall, changed state law in 2011 to allow them to provide schools with $4 billion less over two years than would otherwise have been required to account for growth in student enrollment and other factors. Cumulatively, the cuts to schools could reach $5.4 billion—for a state devoting about $34 billion in general-fund spending over two years to schools—forcing districts to lay off large numbers of employees and cut programs and services, the lawsuits say.

Roughly half of Texas’ 1,030 traditional school districts are represented in the lawsuits, supporters of those cases say.

The four lawsuits quarrel with Texas’ school finance system on different grounds. But an overriding theme is that the state is not providing adequate funding to school districts, particularly given the increasing academic demands placed on schools by the state.

Some of the districts also contend that the funding system is inequitable and provides impoverished school districts and needy populations such as English-language learners with insufficient resources. State legislators have continually changed funding mechanisms in ways that undermined districts’ funding, the lawsuits say.

Another charge is that the school finance system and the lack of state aid to districts essentially force districts to set taxes at various levels, which don’t necessarily result in them receiving substantial amounts of increased funding.

Texas’ funding system has “threatened the principle of local control,” asserts one lawsuit. “School districts are supposed to enjoy meaningful discretion to generate and use local tax revenues for local enrichment purposes. But for many districts, this discretion has practically vanished.”

Lawyers and advocates say it’s likely the lawsuits will be consolidated and go to the state supreme court. The Texas legislature is not scheduled to meet this year, so if a court mandated changes to the state’s school funding, lawmakers might not act until at least 2013, lawyers say.

Superintendent Charles E. Dupre of the Pflugerville Independent School District, a 23,000-student system that is a plaintiff in one suit, said the finance system does not reward his district with additional revenue for increased growth in its property value. His district, located outside Austin, serves a diverse, mixed-income population, including a large number of English-language learners, many of whom require significantly more resources, including smaller class sizes, and the state’s funding formula also does not account for that, he argued.

“The system is totally unreasonable,” Mr. Dupre said.

Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro, the Republican chairwoman of her chamber’s education committee, agreed that Texas’ funding system has structural flaws, particularly in that it is not suited to serve districts with very different needs. But she also said there were no easy fixes—or the lawmakers would have found them already.

“Whatever the courts tell us, we will have to do,” Ms. Shapiro said. But she also argued that discussions of school funding need to focus “not only about more money, but also about productivity.”

Risky Cuts

States may be especially vulnerable if they have made budget-related cuts, such as reducing instructional time, that courts believe disproportionately affect disadvantaged students, said James W. Guthrie, a senior fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, located in Dallas at the former president’s center. He expects the number of school finance lawsuits to increase as states struggle financially.

As long as advocates of increased school funding “can’t get what they want through the traditional political process, we’re going to see more of them,” he said of such cases.

But Mr. Guthrie does not believe the lawsuits, even when they have boosted funding and reduced disparities between districts, have been shown to increase student achievement. He doubted that Texas lawmakers would change the law to substantially benefit schools, saying the more likely result was “no change and substantial confusion.”

Another closely watched legal challenge is playing out in Colorado, where a state district court judge in December ruled that the school funding system is “irrational” and fails to meet state constitutional requirements. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has said the state will appeal the decision and has voiced concerns about having the issue decided in the courts.

“There are more appropriate venues for a vigorous and informed public debate about the state’s spending priorities,” the governor said in a statement, adding that the decision offered “little practical guidance” on how to meet constitutional mandates.

The budget pressures on Colorado’s schools came into focus in November, when voters thoroughly rejected a proposed temporary tax increase that would have raised an estimated $3 billion for education. (“Tax-Wary Voters, Needy Schools a Volatile Mix,” Nov. 9, 2011.)

In Washington, that state’s supreme court ruled this month that the state is not living up to school funding requirements in its constitution. It directed the legislature to correct the situation over time, and it said it would monitor its work.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, has said she agrees with the court that the state must revamp its funding system. Changes are crucial, given recent, deep cuts to K-12 funding, said the governor’s spokeswoman, Karina Shagren. “She’s always said that the first dollars she gets go to education.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as States Dogged by Lawsuits on K-12 Funding

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