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Money, Schools, and Justice

By Stan Karp

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1973 in Rodriguez v. San Antonio that education was not a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, equity advocates and public interest lawyers have fought a state-by-state battle against the "savage inequalities" of school finance systems, which deliver drastically different educational experiences to students from different class, race, and community backgrounds.

Typically, these inequities can be traced to wide gaps in per-pupil spending among districts, and to finance systems that rely heavily on unequal property tax bases as the primary source of funds for education. In many ways, these funding mechanisms simply mirror the growing race and class inequality that exists all around us in an era of huge tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cutbacks for just about everyone else. The National Priorities Project, for example, estimates that this year's nearly $55 billion in tax cuts, given largely to the wealthy, could provide Head Start placements for more than 7.6 million children not currently served by the program, which is currently under attack by the Bush administration.

Given its deep roots, it's not surprising that inequality in school funding has been hard to overcome, despite a growing number of high-profile court cases. Since the early 1970s, high courts in more than 30 states have issued decisions in school finance cases. About half have declared existing funding systems illegal or inadequate and have mandated a variety of corrective measures. In the remaining cases, courts have rejected the challenges, contending that the issue is a legislative matter, or they have narrowly defined the state's obligation to provide education to all.

But even where courts have declared funding systems illegal, equitable solutions have been far from certain. As New Jersey's Education Law Center has pointed out: "Law books are filled with wonderful paper victories which have never been implemented." The New Jersey Supreme Court has declared the state's finance system legally inadequate in various ways no less than nine times since the early 1970s, yet the state is still struggling to devise an equitable funding formula to meet the court mandates. Other states have similar histories of interminable litigation.

By themselves, court rulings have been insufficient to assure equity for several reasons. While glaring disparities in school funding may persuade judges to order reform, it has been almost impossible to prevent governors and state legislators from evading or limiting the impact of the court orders.

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