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Public Education - Judicial Trends

The history of current legal theories of educational equity and adequacy, breaks into three distinct waves of litigation:

1960–1972: The first wave of school finance litigation, say the authors, consisted primarily of constitutional challenges in federal court where claimants alleged that disparate state school finance systems violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. These suits were ultimately unsuccessful and culminated in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Rodriguez decision, which effectively halted further challenges in federal courts.

1972–88: In the second wave of school finance litigation, litigants took their cases to state courts, claiming that the school finance system violated the state’s education and/or its equal protection clause. The most notable of these cases are Serrano v. Priest (1971, 1976, California) and Robinson v. Cahill (1973, New Jersey), as well as the Washakie (1980, Wyoming), Horton (1977, Connecticut), and Pauley (1979, West Virginia) cases. The courts found in favor of the plaintiffs in all five. The authors characterize these cases by the standards of adequacy and equity in public education that were adopted in each. While Serrano, Washakie, and Horton called for equity of educational resources (thereby employing an input standard), Robinson and Pauley adopted an output standard. In Robinson, the output standard required that public education prepare all students to be citizens and competitors in the labor market. Pauley extended this standard, requiring that public education prepare students for "useful and happy occupations."

1989–present: State courts moved into new legal territory during the third wave, as demonstrated by rulings in Kentucky, Texas, Montana, and New Jersey. First, some courts redefined the constitutionally required level of education a state must provide from a minimum education to a quality education. Second, these courts determined constitutional compliance by looking at both input and outcome indicators. Third, their interpretation of the education article of their states’ constitutions opened the door to broad school finance reform across the country. And fourth, courts focused on adequacy in addition to equity, while calling for major systemic reform. According to the authors, this last item is particularly important because it means that both the sufficiency of funding and its distribution are at issue.

In sum, two camps of judicial theory emerged in the 1990s: 1) those courts that ruled their states’ school finance systems invalid and called for a quality education; and 2) those courts that upheld their states’ school finance systems, thus validating the provision of a minimal, basic education to their citizens.

An update of national trends as December, 2004.

In California, issues surrounding the funding of schools may once again return to the courts, if Governor Schwarzenegger does not convene the Quality Education Commission.



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Last modified: December 17, 2004

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