Education Funding

6 Lawsuits That Could Shake Up How States Pay for Schools

By Mark Lieberman — January 27, 2023 6 min read
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Do states provide adequate funding to ensure all students can access a high-quality education? Do local taxpayers shoulder an unfair burden to provide money to schools? Are schools able to maintain operations as the cost of goods and services inevitably rises with inflation?

These are among the key questions driving ongoing lawsuits that could reshape how schools are funded in the states where they’re playing out, and reverberate elsewhere.

Far removed from the annual budgeting process, these funding lawsuits challenge the underlying mechanisms that provide districts with those dollars.

They have proved an essential tool for public school advocates—including education lawyers, teachers unions, district leaders, and even parents—aiming to hold states accountable to their constitutional obligations to provide an adequate education for all. Courts that rule in the plaintiffs’ favor can pressure lawmakers to allocate resources they might otherwise fail to supply.

These cases often take years to resolve and play out behind the scenes of day-to-day school operations. But the litigation often represents a key turning point in the political fight for more equitable education funding, said David Sciarra, who’s set to retire this month after 26 years as executive director of the nonprofit Education Law Center. He’s been at the center of numerous school funding lawsuits, including the landmark Abbott rulings in New Jersey that set the stage for sweeping change across the state in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“When the judicial branch got involved, whether there’s a court case or not, what we really found was the factor that led to their success was building strong and sustained political campaigns focused on state legislatures and governors,” Sciarra said during an interview with Education Week.

Here’s what you need to know about pending cases around the country that could boost funding and resources for schools.

Arizona: Paying for school maintenance and construction

Background: In 2017, districts, parents and advocacy groups launched a lawsuit alleging that Arizona had failed over the previous decade to adequately monitor school building conditions and fund roughly $2 billion in facilities improvements.

Next steps: Katie Hobbs, the newly elected Democratic governor, signaled last month that the state will adopt a more sympathetic posture toward the plaintiffs than the previous administration, led by Republican Doug Ducey. The state has since announced its intention to settle rather than continue to argue that districts, not the state, were responsible for facilities needs that went unaddressed. A judge agreed this month to cancel a scheduled trial in order to let the parties negotiate.

Implications: This case illustrates the potential long-term value of filing school funding litigation even in a hostile political environment like Arizona, where Republican officials vigorously denied the state’s responsibility. As this instance demonstrates, a single election can radically change the outlook for efforts to improve school funding.

New Hampshire: Relying less on local property taxes

Background: Two different lawsuits in New Hampshire are challenging the state’s approach to school funding. One, filed in 2019, focuses on urging the state to provide more dollars per student to ensure that all students can access an adequate education. The other, filed last July, argues that the state exacerbates inequities by placing too much of the financial burden for school funding on local property tax payers. Both cases build on the Claremont decisions from the 1990s, which established the state’s constitutional responsibility for providing adequate education for all students.

Next steps: The state Supreme Court in March 2021 declined to render a verdict on the earlier case, sending it back to a lower court for a trial set to begin this month. A trial for the latter case is set for this August.

Implications: Once state courts assert that responsibility for school funding falls on the state, rather than districts alone, the stage is set for arguments that the state is failing to meet those goals. That’s what’s happening in New Hampshire. Some of the same attorneys who successfully argued that the state ought to ensure adequate funding for all students are using the outcome of that case to argue that the state is failing to meet its commitments.

North Carolina: A three-decade struggle to boost funding

Background: Districts and parents in North Carolina filed a lawsuit in 1994—four presidential administrations and nearly three decades ago—arguing that the state was falling well short of its responsibility to ensure all students have the school resources they need. The case has wound through myriad developments since then, including several rulings from judges in favor of the districts’ arguments. The case’s namesake, Robb Leandro, was an 8th-grader when the case began; he’s now a practicing attorney in his 40s.

Next steps: Judges and lawmakers have been in a standoff for months over whether the state Supreme Court can compel an immediate investment of $1.7 billion to help the state execute its court-approved Comprehensive Plan for schools, which includes $6 billion in new education funding by 2028. Two different judges have tried to assert their authority, but Republican lawmakers, in particular, haven’t backed down.

Implications: When a similar impasse over school funding arose between the judicial and legislative branches in Kansas in 2005, the court threatened to delay the start of the school year until the matter could be cleared up. That never came to pass, but it’s a reminder of the stakes in North Carolina.

Pennsylvania: Providing equal opportunity in low-wealth districts

Background: Low-wealth school districts in Pennsylvania argue that the state puts them at a severe disadvantage for resources because of its school funding system weighted heavily toward property taxes. Attorneys for districts filed a lawsuit in 2014, and it finally went to trial last year. Districts pleaded their case by pointing to significant gaps in programs and services, while opponents challenged their assertions of significant disparities (and in one instance, cited faulty data in the process).

Next steps: Districts are anxiously awaiting a verdict from a judge, which is likely to result in the case heading to the state supreme court.

Implications: The state’s newly elected Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, has promised major investments in public education. An affirmative victory for districts could provide the political momentum he needs to implement big changes.

Wyoming: Keeping pace with rising costs

Background: The Wyoming Education Association, the statewide teachers union, filed a lawsuit last summer charging that the state’s education funding fails to match the pace of inflation and the rising cost of K-12 schooling. Among the union’s grievances are decades of stagnant wages and inadequate funding for security improvements the state strongly recommends. Several districts have since joined the lawsuit.

Next Steps: A judge ruled last month that the union has standing to lead the lawsuit, though the plaintiffs will only be able to seek changes in the law, not punitive damages to discourage the state from further underfunding.

Implications: This case is the only one of the lawsuits listed here that was launched by a teachers union, and only later gained the backing of districts themselves. The state tried to argue that the teachers union isn’t the subject of the state’s constitutional commitment to education, and therefore doesn’t have standing to sue, but a judge disagreed.

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