Standards push helps lawsuits

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Across the country, 25 states are now facing lawsuits challenging the way they pay for schools, according to the New York-based Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which tracks the progress of such suits.

Indeed, lawsuits are by far the most common tactic activists have used to try and force states to change their education funding systems. In all, 45 states have faced lawsuits filed by reformers looking to the courts for relief. And while every state constitution includes an education clause that can be used as a springboard to a lawsuit, courts in some states have been more willing than others to enter the political thicket to enforce them.

Between 1973 and 1988, funding reform advocates won only seven of 22 lawsuits. But since 1989, activists have prevailed in 19 of 29 suits. (A number of states had lawsuits considered during both periods.)

Plaintiffs are succeeding more often largely because of the standards-based reform movement that’s been embraced across the country, says Michael A. Rebell, executive director and top lawyer for CFE, a coalition of parent organizations, community school boards, citizens and advocacy groups. CFE won its own lawsuit last year in New York State.

Rebell explains that these reforms require students to take standardized tests and hold teachers and schools accountable for how well students perform. Through these requirements, states define what the standards are for an adequate education and provide data to show whether or not those standards are being met. If students do not, the data eases the way for plaintiffs to prove to a judge that the state isn’t meeting its obligation, Rebell explains.

“It brings the Constitution alive,” he says.

A 1989 Kentucky lawsuit was one of the first to link student progress on standardized tests to the adequacy argument, becoming the “blueprint” for subsequent lawsuits, says Steve Smith, an education policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Simply filing a suit—or threatening to—can also spur reform, even if the plaintiffs do not win a favorable verdict, Rebell and Smith both note. That happened in both Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“More and more, these litigation efforts are tied to a basic political organizing campaign,” Rebell says. And when plaintiffs have lost, organizations have helped push for the changes anyway, he adds.

Here are some highlights from other states, and their ranking on the annual Education Week survey. “Adequacy” is a measure of how many students received at least the national average ($6,580) in per-pupil funding for 2000-2001, and how close to the national average funding was for students whose districts did not provide that amount. “Equity” is a measure of the state’s contribution to education and the extent to which that money is targeted to low-income students.

NEW YORK STATE

Adequacy: A

Equity: C-

In a June 2003 ruling, New York State’s highest court gave lawmakers until July 2004 to provide students in New York City with access to a “sound basic education.” The deadline came as the result of a 1993 lawsuit by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.

The court also told the state to conduct a “costing-out” study to determine how much money would be needed. One such study, initiated in part by CFE, estimated that it would take $7 billion to give all students in the state that level of instruction.

Gov. George E. Pataki has formed a panel to come up with suggestions on how to comply. At Catalyst press time, the panel was scheduled to release its findings in mid-March.

ARKANSAS

Adequacy: C-

Equity: B

Two ‘special masters,’ appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court, will determine by mid-April 2004 if the state has met its obligation under the Arkansas charter to provide an adequate education to each schoolchild.

In November 2002, the state Supreme Court found the school funding system to be inadequate and inequitable. (The special masters it appointed are both former high court members.) The case had been in the courts for at least 20 years.

In response, the legislature passed a series of measures designed to comply with the court’s decision. It raised the sales tax to 6 percent from 5.125 percent, bringing in $364 million in the first year, and added corporate taxes designed to bring in $8 million. Lawmakers approved mandatory consolidation of districts with fewer than 350 students, beefed up state-funded pre-kindergarten programs and gave teachers in poor areas bonuses for teaching there for their first three years.

OHIO

Adequacy: B-

Equity: D+

Four times, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that the Buckeye State’s school funding system violates the state Constitution. The court even used one decision to outline changes to bring the state into compliance, but the legislature came up with other ideas. In 2002, the justices threw up their hands. They again found the system unconstitutional but decided there was nothing more they could do to force the legislature to comply.

The court has maintained since 1997 that lawmakers should conduct “a complete systematic overhaul” of the funding system, especially its reliance on property taxes. In response, legislators boosted funding and initiated a five-year, $3.5 billion school construction program. They also added a number of accountability requirements for districts.

But lawmakers have yet to change the “overreliance” on property taxes that the high court found problematic. Writing separately, two judges predicted that more lawsuits would ensue as a result of the 2002 decision. However, a month after the court issued that ruling, two new judges joined the seven-member court, which observers widely believe will now be less sympathetic to funding challenges.

PENNSYLVANIA

Adequacy: B

Equity: D-

Court challenges have failed three times, most recently in 1998. But several grassroots organizations continue to push for changes, and made education funding a top issue in the 2002 governor’s race.

The Democratic victor, Gov. Ed Rendell, clashed with legislators during his first year on the job as he tried to boost the state’s share of school funding to 50 percent from 35 percent. The result was a six-month stand-off during which schools didn’t receive any money. In this year’s budget, Rendell proposed increasing subsidies to local schools by $250 million, compared to the $175 million he agreed to in order to break last year’s stalemate with the Republican-controlled legislature. Republicans have already objected.

MARYLAND

Adequacy: B

Equity: D

In 2002, Maryland lawmakers agreed to a six-year plan to overhaul school funding and eventually ramp up the state’s contributions to schools by $1.3 billion a year. The legislature and governor signed on to the report of the Thornton Commission—a panel of lawmakers, administration officials and private citizens—largely to avoid court intervention.

Back in 1994, the city of Baltimore and the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state, alleging that Baltimore’s children were not receiving an adequate education. The case was settled before trial, but the plaintiffs went back to court in 2000, accusing the state of failing to live up to its end of the bargain. After the judge made a key ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, the two sides settled with the six-year plan.

Under the legislation, new money for schools initially came from higher cigarette taxes. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed allowing slot machines at racetracks and two other locations in order to pay for next year’s share of additional funds. But House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, opposes Ehrlich’s plan.

WISCONSIN

Adequacy: A

Equity: C+

The state is now operating under a “three-legged stool” of finance reforms hashed out under former Gov. Tommy Thompson, now the Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Two court challenges that attempted to enact reforms failed, the last time in 2000.

Under the three-part plan, Wisconsin pays two-thirds of education costs. Teachers agreed to state-determined raises if collective bargaining negotiations fall through with their local school districts. And districts became subject to revenue caps set by the state, which limit the amount of money schools can raise through property taxes.

Last year, the state fell short of its two-thirds obligation—though not by much—because of budget constraints. The amount of money Wisconsin gives to each district depends on how much the district raises in property taxes, which creates disparities among districts. Currently, a panel is studying ways to alleviate some of those problems.

MICHIGAN

Adequacy: B+

Equity: C

In the 25 years before 1994, Michigan voters defeated 11 referendum initiatives to revamp the way the state pays for schools. In 1994, though, they approved “Proposal A,” which raised the state sales tax from 4 percent to 6 percent and increased other taxes as well. The plan reduced property taxes and limited future increases. Most districts now cannot use property taxes to pay for operating costs.

Voters were given the choice to either approve Proposal A, or have income taxes increase automatically. Roughly 69 percent of voters opted for Proposal A.

The move was the end result of frustration over high property taxes, which came to a head in 1993. That year, Kalkaska, a small town in northern Michigan, closed its schools rather than raise property taxes. Later that year, the legislature abolished all school property taxes that weren’t used to pay off debts and came up with Proposal A.