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September 4th, 2008
Challenging Equity in the Courts

If there’s any evidence that the current system of school finance isn’t working well – it’s this: 45 out of 50 states have been sued for the way they fund their schools, some multiple times. The majority of them have won.

What, exactly, are these states challenging? In recent years, it’s education adequacy – the idea all schools, and all districts, should receive enough funding to adequately educate students. The plaintiffs in these cases have argued, with much success, that additional funding targeted to concrete improvements like new equipment, textbooks, and buildings will help to close the gap between the quality of education for students in low-income, minority districts, and those in affluent ones.

Statistics show this gap remains wide. More minority students attend predominately minority schools than a decade ago. Students in high-poverty areas are twice as likely to be taught by unqualified teachers and teachers who are not licensed in the subjects they teach. African-American students and Hispanic students continue to test nearly 30 percent more students at “below basic” competency levels. And across the country, African-American students and Hispanic students are twice as likely or more to drop out before graduation from high school than white students.

Since 1973, the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on the issue of school finance.

“Adequacy cases are a savvy strategy that say we need to raise the floor as a whole,” says Michael Rebell, Executive Director, Campaign for Educational Equality, Columbia Teachers College. “Adequacy determines what is an adequate education, what the basic quality of education all children need. Lack of money in poor inner cities usually wins because it’s tangible, you have buildings falling apart, no buildings at all, teachers are not certified, etc. – you can tell it’s not adequate.”

An experienced litigator, Rebell has been the co-counsel in numerous adequacy cases – most notably in the state of New York, where the Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court, declared that all children are entitled under ART XI of the state constitution to the “opportunity for a sound basic education.”

Why doesn’t the U.S. Supreme Court weigh in on the issue? It did, in the 1973 case of Rodriguez v. San Antonio, when it said that education is not a fundamental right under the federal constitution. The case also said that reliance on property taxes to fund public schools does not violate the Equal Protection Clause even if it causes inter-district expenditure disparities.

This decision tossed the issue back to the states. And since then, plaintiffs across the country have sought relief in state courts for states’ failure to provide to all children the opportunity for a quality education. Currently, over 20 states are involved in active litigation.


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