Late last year, when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against more than 450 school districts in a lawsuit over inadequate school funding, champions of public schools took a punch. But, they’re not down — and they have a lot of friends. Relief may be in sight.
The ruling hinged on a technicality. It was not based on a determination that school funding was adequate, but instead, the suit itself was flawed. Adair v. The State of Michigan was filed by taxpayer plaintiff Daniel Adair, along with individuals from 450 districts. The impetus behind it was an unfunded mandate requiring districts to report to the Center for Educational Performance and Information, supplying data on compliance with the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. As with many of these evaluation and performance initiatives, the school typically bears the burden of cost without compensation — taking money out classrooms. The court found that the plaintiff neglected to provide a specific amount of underfunding, sending them back to put a dollar figure on their claim.
A court cop-out? Not necessarily.
“Costing-Out” May Pave the Way to Legal Victory
Michigan is among a handful of states that has not yet conducted a “costing-out study” to determine the actual cost of public education. But now, a new law will require the state to crunch the numbers. The organization Access to Quality Education describes the importance of “costing-out”:
Historically, the amount of funding provided to public schools has been based on a politically determined amount of money available for state education aid – without an analysis of educational needs – and on local ability to raise through property taxes. As a result, school revenues are the result of political struggles over how to distribute money among a state’s school districts.
In 37 states, experts in education finance have performed “costing-out studies” at the request of state legislatures or other organizations, in order to determine the amount of school funding needed to provide all students a meaningful educational opportunity.
Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) attempted to legislatively remedy the oversight through a proposal last year, but GOP lawmakers smothered it in committee. There was also a 2013 Republican version lurking in committee, loaded-down with some partisan baggage requiring public schools to provide a heaping helping of patriotism as part of the regular curriculum. In the end, the Tea Party rhetoric was redacted during the recent lame duck session, and the bill was ushered through. Even though the original sponsors pulled their support, the legislation passed and was signed into law as Public Act 555.
Within one year of the new law’s enactment, the Department of Technology, Management and Budget must authorize a study to determine the correct amount of per pupil funding. This has broad-reaching implications for both funding adequacy and equity. It also sets the stage for success with future litigation.
The Education War Rages On
Access to Quality Education has tracked litigation on the national level over the decades, and their database indicates that school district plaintiffs prevail slightly more often than their state defendants. And now, with the renewed GOP assault on public education, school districts across the country are charging forward with matching vigor accusing their legislatures of depriving public school students their due.
A study from the Center for American Progress places the blame squarely on Republican political maneuvers aimed at under-cutting judicial authority. The judiciary watchdog organization Gavel Grab reports:
[T]he Center for American Progress finds that “Conservative politicians are lashing out at courts that order equal funding for education,” as the report’s title states, and they are seeking to remove judges, reduce their authority or give the legislative and executive branches “exclusive control” over appointing judges.
Kansas Dukes it Out
Turn back the clock ten years to 2005 when the Kansas Supreme Court spanked lawmakers ordering them to cough-up an extra $285 million to meet their constitutional obligation to fully fund education. The stakes were high — the court threatened to shut down K-12 education if the legislature didn’t act.
Last December, a three-judge panel in Kansas again ruled school funding was inadequate. The argument is headed for the state Supreme Court for the second time.
A New “Testing Ground” Lawsuit
Enter the State of Washington. In 2012, the state’s Supreme Court similarly tasked their legislative branch with fulfilling its constitutional duty to support K-12 schools, ordering full funding to be phased-in by 2018. Lawmakers shirked their obligation, and in September of 2014 the high court found the Legislature in contempt of court.
What happens when an entire branch of government is on the wrong side of the law? The Seattle Times reports:
The court hasn’t said what sanctions it may impose if the Legislature fails to do so, but it has asked the state if it should do what the plaintiffs propose — everything from imposing fines to blocking money for noneducation programs, selling state property and shutting down the schools.
Doin’ it Lone Star Style
In 2011, the Texas Legislature slashed education funding by over $5 billion to balance the state’s budget. Over 600 school districts responded with litigation accusing the state of neglecting their constitutional obligation to provide an “efficient system of free public education.” A district court ruled for the plaintiffs, prompting the former Texas Attorney General, Greg Abbott, to appeal. Late last month, the Texas Supreme Court announced it will entertain the case on under-funded schools. By the way, Abbott was just sworn-in as the new Governor of Texas.
A Connecticut Case
Five years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the state was responsible for providing “suitable education opportunities” and remanded the case to a lower court to determine if the state was meeting its obligation. Now, as the case comes to fruition, state-hired attorneys are citing technicalities in an attempt to have certain parties barred from involvement in the broad coalition backing the class-action lawsuit against the state. The Connecticut Mirror reports this month that the heart of the defense relies on breaking-up the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding — a group of mayors, parents, education associations and teachers unions. The state does not wish to argue the case on its merits, but instead is attempting the cowardly way-out — through legal chicanery.
The Keystone State
Pennsylvania schools suffer from funding inequities which rival Michigan’s. While some privileged districts are lavished with $28,000 in per pupil stipends, their bottom tier districts receive $10,000 (an amount that admittedly would be a princely sum for most Michigan districts). Yet it is the inequities that are alarming. They fall along racial and geographic lines, and are demonstrated through student performance. Communities of color, along with rural districts, are deprived of adequate funding, thereby creating academic inequities among them. The Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP, among others, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the governor and the leaders of both the House and Senate in a complaint demanding adherence to the constitutional requirement for “the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”
New York, New York — A State So Nice, They Sued it Twice (possibly thrice)
In a lawsuit filed in 1993, a group of activists called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity sued the state of New York over inadequate funding of New York City Schools. Thirteen years later, the courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and a new formula was implemented. Two years after the ruling, economic hard times again lead to a slash in school funding.
A 2014 report from the Alliance for Quality Education, titled Billions Behind, found the state was withholding funds, with 69 percent of school districts struggling with fewer dollars than available in 2008. Nearly half of the underfunding was directed at NYC schools.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers told the Times Union earlier this month that legal action may be necessary again.
“New York City is owed $2.6 billion. We’re waiting to see if the budget process moves in a better direction. If it doesn’t, then at that point we will sit down and decide what our legal action is.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is holding hostage about $1.1 billion in school aid over demands for tougher tenure rules and implementation of increased use of standardized testing as a means to evaluate teacher effectiveness.
Another parallel case is on its way to the New York Supreme Court. The Association of Small School Districts filed suit back in 2008 calling for funding equity.
As the legislature and Gov. Snyder wrangle over the fine print of the state budget, lawmakers are already attempting to tap the state’s School Aid Fund to shore up deficits in the general fund. House bill 4110 will rob over $250 million from schools to patch a $456 million budget shortfall.
Ignoring the constitutional obligation to properly fund public schools, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Al Pscholka (R-Stevensville) brags that he’s proud to “uphold the Constitution” by balancing the budget.
This, from the same lawmaker who brought the Emergency Manager law to Michigan.
Amy Kerr Hardin
Post Script: Of the seven states profiled above, about half are under Democratic rule — governors and/or lawmakers. Each is unique in its partisan profile. Washington being a very odd case where some Democrats prefer to caucus with Republicans. See full chart here.