Summing Up: The Future Of School Finance Litigation

As we have seen, most of the early legal theories attacking school funding arrangements emphasized equality in a way that implied either a dramatic raising up of the wealth and/or spending level of poor, low-spending districts or a leveling down of the advantaged districts (or a combination of both). The Coons team, for example, had counted on the strong commitment to high spending of many of the high-wealth/high-spending districts as a force that would promote greater educational spending across the board. Even though this did not happen in California, it does appear to be a major consequence of successful school finance "equity" cases in other states (Evans et al., 1997).

Nowadays, however, the emphasis of many school finance reformers has shifted. For one thing, restraining or bringing down spending at the top is very unpopular (in some quarters some families shift to private schools, or equity-evading tactics in wealthy communities result in the creation of community foundations that supplement the public school funding provided by government). Yet, to raise spending everywhere up to the top (even if a few outlier districts are excluded) seems too expensive in many states. At the same time, many of those who complain about the public schools seem to care less that their children (or those they represent) are relatively worse off and more that they are badly off in an absolute sense.

These factors have combined to cause legal activists to change tactics, which have been supported by some courts. Although courts in many states have by now rejected the traditional "equity" claims, other more ambitious cases demanding "adequacy" are winning.

In the end, however, these two different legal approaches—equity and adequacy—are not so far apart as some commentators have suggested (Clune, 1993; Underwood, 1995). For example, although "adequacy" candidly concerns itself with educational outcomes, its advocates are not insisting that students have a legally enforceable "right" to any particular outcome. Rather, they appear to argue that each school district must have adequate resources, given its circumstances and the nature of its pupils, to be able to offer an educational program that reasonably promises to teach at least most of them to reasonably high standards. This principle is more ambitious as a legal standard than fiscal neutrality because it focuses on more than dollar inputs. At the same time, it contains many "soft" words that courts cannot define with clarity. Nevertheless, it carries a meaning that some courts do seem comfortable with in two critical respects. First, these courts believe that they can readily tell that, at least in some states, the adequacy principle is clearly not being met; and second, they feel that they will be able to determine whether the systemic revisions developed by the legislature constitute genuine responses to the adequacy standard.

Still, even as the courts embracing the adequacy idea envision legislative responses that will include more than mere financial changes, these courts seem

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