Fairness in the distribution of education dollars has long been an objective of school finance reformers, but one that has frequently been thwarted by the political realities of an education system that allocates much of the responsibility for funding and operating schools to local governments. Concern about how funding policies and practices affect the performance of schools is a more recent development, but one that is becoming ever more central to school finance decision making.
In the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the United States awoke from its historical indifference to the problem of unequal educational opportunities and began to address them. Beginning about 1970, the nation entered a notably vigorous period of school finance reform aimed at making the distribution of education dollars more fair. Litigants in a number of states succeeded in having state finance systems overturned in court on the grounds that they violated state constitutional equal protection provisions or education clauses. In the wake of these court decisions, virtually all states, whether under court order or not, substantially changed their finance systems. State and federal governments also created a number of categorical programs directing resources to students with special education needs and to some extent compensating for funding inequities at the local level.
Despite these changes, U.S. education continues to be characterized by large disparities in educational spending. While within-state funding disparities decreased in some states, especially those subject to court-mandated reform, large disparities persist. Moreover, disparities continue to mirror the economic circumstances of district residents; districts with lower-income residents spend less than districts whose residents have higher incomes. In some districts, this pattern is repeated in school-to-school spending differences. Nationwide, over half of the disparity in district per-pupil spending is the result of differences in spending between states rather than within states.
Particularly in the last decade, the concept of fairness as it applies to school finance has taken on a new emphasis, spawning another round of litigation and reform. The pursuit of fairness has moved beyond a focus on the relative distribution of educational inputs to embrace the idea of educational adequacy as the standard to which school finance systems should be held.
Despite the success of adequacy arguments in several prominent school finance court decisions, there is as yet no consensus on its meaning and only limited understanding about what would be required to achieve it. Adequacy is an evolving concept, and major conceptual and technical challenges remain to be overcome if school finance is to be held to an adequacy standard. Earlier concepts of equity posed similar challenges in their infancy, although over time much progress was made in defining and measuring them. Similar progress may be expected here. In the meantime, awareness of the shortcomings in current understanding of adequacy is important for all who would use the concept in either policy making or in research.