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Rich Schools, Poor Schools: Fifty Years of Pursuing the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity

Arthur Wise: Rich Schools, Poor Schools: Fifty Years of Pursuing the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity

by Arthur E. Wise

This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity 5 decades after the Kerner Commission issued its seminal report on racial division and disparities in the United States.

In 1968, the University of Chicago Press published my book, Rich Schools, Poor Schools: The Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity. That book, an expansion of an article published three years earlier, took note of the glaring inequities in public school funding and suggested they were so egregious that, upon examination by the courts, they would be found unconstitutional. What has happened as the result of that improbable suggestion a half century ago?

Advocates for poor school districts immediately seized upon the judicial strategy to attack the failure of state legislatures to provide sufficient funds to compensate for meager local tax bases. Several unsuccessful challenges in 1969 and 1970 were followed quickly by successful challenges in 1971 and 1972 in Texas, California, and New Jersey. Faster than anyone imagined, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted an appeal by the state of Texas of a lower federal court decision favorable to its poor school districts.

The argument was a logical extension of the Supreme Court’s 1950s-60s “egalitarian revolution in judicial doctrine.” That revolution saw the Court extend equal protection in education to African American students, in criminal justice to indigent defendants, and in voting to citizens whose votes did not have full value. Advocates for students in poor school districts argued that wide disparities in state funding of school districts represented a similar denial of equal protection of the law and thus a denial of equal educational opportunity.

The egalitarian revolution was the creation of the Warren Court; when San Antonio v. Rodriguez reached the Court in 1973, it had become the more conservative Burger Court. The Court ruled, in a 5-to-4 decision, that the disparity in Texas funding of school districts did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Under the ruling, states could continue to vary the quality of education based upon the amount of taxable wealth in the school districts within which they reside. Texas could continue to invest $558 per student in wealthy Alamo Heights and $248 per student in poor Edgewood.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, however, did not preclude action by state courts and, thirteen days after the national decision, the Supreme Court of New Jersey declared that state’s school finance system unconstitutional. Poor school districts in many states took notice of this victory and sued their states, commencing a stream of litigation that continues to today.

Some advocates took note of the U.S. Supreme Court’s observation that it might have ruled differently if “some identifiable quantum of education,” could be shown to be necessary for the meaningful exercise of the constitutionally protected rights of free speech and voting. As the standards and accountability movement emerged, state legislatures, probably unwittingly, exposed themselves to “adequacy” lawsuits by their failure to provide adequate funding for all students to meet state standards.

After five decades, where do we stand? Overall, schools are less inequitable than they would have been in the absence of the lawsuits. Prior to the lawsuits, formulas were quietly devised in the back room of the state legislature. Now they are subject to judicial sunshine. Two university centers track these lawsuits.

SchoolFunding.Info, a center at Teachers College, Columbia University, reports that between 1973 and 2017, plaintiffs won 27 cases, states won 22 cases, while 12 cases are currently pending. Since the number of cases exceeds the number of states, clearly some states have had more than one suit. While the majority of decisions favored the plaintiffs, a significant number did not. The situation is complicated and fluid, often with shifting tides within the same state.

The Education Law Center at Rutgers monitors funding. In 2017, it reported that only a handful of states offer high funding levels and provide significantly more funding to districts where student poverty is highest. On the other hand, 21 states, up from 14 last year, operate regressive plans that provide less funding to districts with higher concentrations of students from low-income families.

This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity. More from the series >

What are we to conclude? The yin and the yang of legislative action or inaction and court action or inaction continue as the search for a sustainable and equitable solution goes on. State legislatures long ago accepted the fact that “local school districts” are, legally, “state school districts” and began to ensure a modicum of funding for all though never enough to approach equity or adequacy. As the courts entered what had been exclusively a legislative arena, many have issued judicial orders requiring equity or adequacy. Legislatures respond fitfully, sometimes fully complying with rulings for equity or adequacy and sometimes not; sometimes with new funding formulas that last for years and sometimes with formulas that lose potency over time.

Legislatures control the purse strings, so we must recognize the underlying dynamic. Legislators understand that they must provide a minimum education for all, defined in dollar terms. Some well-meaning legislators are even willing to provide a better education for all. Nevertheless, legislators tend to be more responsive to privileged parents in wealthy school districts who want to give their children a competitive edge. Over 50 years and, literally, thousands of legislative and court decisions, as the average annual expenditure per student has climbed from $400 to $11,000 (due to inflation, cost pressures, and quality enhancements), the gaps persist. Sometimes the gaps narrow and sometimes they widen, but all too often they persist. As tracked by the Education Law Center and SchoolFunding.Info, the data show the strength of the desire by the affluent to preserve their privilege in a public education system ostensibly designed to prepare all students to succeed.

What can be done, especially in these fraught political times, to advance the goal of providing equitable education for poor children? We must continue to establish the research base for sound education policy—courts are more reliable consumers of research than the other branches of government. We must continue to bring lawsuits while recognizing and mobilizing for the reality that a favorable school finance decree is the beginning rather than the end of the reform process. We must watch for the wishful thinking embedded in state school accountability legislation and hoist it on its own petard—legally. Raising standards without commensurately increasing funding is a false promise.  We must be on the lookout for new national policy levers and concepts that can capture public and political attention—the right to read, the right to an education, education as a civil right, or other notions that make clear that a child without effective education a child is doomed and that a nation with many such children is similarly doomed.

Raising standards without commensurately increasing funding is a false promise.

The good news is that even in the present, climate fairness can be achieved—the Education Law Center has found that Wyoming and New Jersey score “relatively well” on its four measures of fairness. Education Week’s Quality Counts 2018: Finance also found that Wyoming and New Jersey, along with Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont score well on its criteria of equity and spending. And in 2018, after a half century of litigation, 12 lawsuits are still pursuing the promise of equal educational opportunity.

Arthur E. Wise was a scholar and activist in the early years of the school finance reform movement and then became a scholar and activist in the reform of the teaching profession. He is now an education policy consultant based in Potomac, MD.​