have the capacity, resources, and political will to implement the types of reforms embedded in school finance litigation?
This chapter will explore the trends in the politics of school finance from the 1970s to the present and will look specifically at four states where the courts have ordered reforms of school finance systems. Analysts of school finance litigation have argued that favorable trends in recent court decisions give cause for optimism about improved school finance equity (Thro, 1989, 1990). Political and economic analysts, on the other hand, have argued that significant challenges to school finance reform remain in many states (Reed, 1997). Using a general analysis of the issues and the evidence from these four states, we will argue that although judicial decisions in favor of finance equity are more common and more comprehensive, the political climate can impede efforts to take action based on these decisions. The political incentives for governors and legislators are such that comprehensive changes in school finance programs are not likely to come easily within a state, at least for the foreseeable future.
The analysis of school finance politics in this chapter addresses the following questions: (1) Why is school finance reform so contentious in the United States? What incentives encourage politicians to either support or oppose greater equity in school finance? (2) How were the politics of school finance in the 1970s and 1980s influenced by the trends in the courts, in state politics, and in the economy? (3) How did the political, economic, and social contexts in the 1990s differ from those of the 1970s and 1980s? (4) Are the politics of school finance in four states (Kentucky, Alabama, New Jersey,2 and Texas) examples of the trends in the 1990s? (5) What are some of the lessons learned in school finance politics? What are some of the crucial elements for successful reform?
School finance is an inherently controversial issue in the United States because it affects two basic issues that concern most American voters: the resources available for their children's education and their state and local taxes. Education is often seen as the great equalizer, the key to success, and the most important responsibility for state and local politicians. Although most people support the idea of giving all children equal educational opportunities, problems arise when attempts are made to define equality (see Berne and Stiefel, Chapter 1 in this volume). There is no consensus about the quality of education to which every child is entitled, the extent to which each citizen should pay for that education, or the level or forms of disparities that are acceptable within a school district, state, or the nation.