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Making Money Matter: Financing America's Schools
State constitutions provided grounds for school finance suits because most contain one or more provisions that either parallel the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause or have been interpreted to afford similar protections (Williams, 1985). In addition, state constitutions, unlike their federal counterpart, contain a variety of so-called education clauses specifying education as a state function and requiring legislatures to provide a public school system that is described in various ways, often including "thorough and efficient" or "ample." 2
Numerous lawsuits followed in Serrano's wake. By 1998, legal cases had been brought against school finance systems in 43 states (Minorini and Sugarman, 1999). In 19 states, supreme courts found school funding systems unconstitutional. Litigation or the threat of litigation sometimes spurred changes in state financing systems even when there was no formal court order present. In nine states (in 1998) where plaintiffs lost their initial cases, further complaints were filed.
Plaintiffs who won in state supreme courts frequently found themselves back in court again and again, challenging the remedies crafted by state legislatures. Here, too, developments in California forecast what was in store in many states: repeated appeals to courts to overturn legislative responses to court orders. In Serrano II, the California court not only upheld its prior decision based exclusively on state rather than on federal constitutional grounds but also held that school finance legislation passed in response to Serrano I was insufficient. (It failed to meet the court's standard for equity, which required that differences in per-pupil spending, exclusive of categorical aids and programs for children with special educational needs, such as disabilities or limited proficiency in English, be no greater among most districts than $100 in 1971 dollars.) New Jersey, perhaps the most infamous example of repeated returns to court, went 25 years from the plaintiffs' first supreme court victory (Robinson v. Cahill (Robinson I), 303 A.2d 273, N.J. 1973), to what appears to be the final settlement in the successor case (Abbott v. Burke, 710 A.2d 450, N.J. 1998), while in West Virginia legal challenges begun in 1979 were still subject to litigation in 1998.
Legal Theories in Support of Reform
The wealth-neutrality principle successfully argued in Serrano I was not the first legal theory put forward by scholars and legal activists hoping to attack school finance inequity in the courts. All early reformers focused their attention on the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment provision that states not deny to individuals "equal protection of the law," but they developed differing notions
State education clauses are collected in an appendix to Hubsch (1992). Some scholars (McUsic, 1991; Thro, 1993) have attempted to categorize state education clauses based on their wording so as to be able to predict results in school finance cases, but there appears to be little correlation between the language per se and the likelihood of success in a given suit (Underwood, 1995).