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Money, Schools, and Justice

By Stan Karp

For the past 30 years, battles over school funding have been clogging the nation's courts. Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1973 (San Antonio v. Rodriguez) that education was not a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution, equity advocates have fought a state-by-state battle against the "savage inequalities" of school finance systems that provide sharply different levels of education to students from different class, race, and community backgrounds.

Typically, inequities have been traced to wide gaps in per-pupil spending and to finance systems that rely heavily on unequal property tax bases to fund schools. More recently, "adequacy" cases have focused on the gap between what school funding systems provide and what state and federal education standards (including the No Child Left Behind law) demand of schools. In many ways school funding systems simply mirror—and reproduce—the inequality we see all around us.

Although the details are complicated, the heart of the matter is simple: Our schools don't get enough money, and the money they do get is not distributed fairly. Beneath the legal briefs, the legislative jargon, and the complex formulas that dominate debate over school finance, lie two central questions: Will we provide schools with the resources they need to make high-quality education possible, and will we provide those resources to all children, or only some children? The answers we give will go a long way toward determining whether our society's future will be one of democratic promise or deepening division.

Since the early 1970s, more than 40 state high courts have issued decisions in school finance cases. About half have declared existing funding systems illegal or inadequate and mandated a variety of corrective measures.

But as New Jersey's Education Law Center has pointed out, "Law books are filled with wonderful paper victories which have never been implemented." While glaring disparities in school funding may persuade judges to order reform, it's been difficult to prevent governors and state legislators from limiting the impact of court orders. Restrained by separation-of-powers concerns and a conservative political climate, most courts have given states wide latitude to proceed with half measures and evasive action.

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