By 2013 all but 5 state governments in the US had been sued for failing to provide sufficient funds for schooling. The early cases were based on equity concerns and argued that poor children were not getting equal treatment because their schools were receiving far less funding. About two thirds of these lawsuits were defeated but enough were successful to force many states to attempt to do something about gross inequities of funding.
During the 1990s most lawsuits were based instead on the general adequacy of school funding to provide a sound basic education, a right guaranteed by most state constitutions. Adequate funding was defined in a New York lawsuit as funding that would provide for “sufficient numbers of qualified teachers, appropriate class sizes, adequate buildings, up-to-date books, libraries, technology and laboratories and an expanded curriculum for at-risk students.”
Most of these adequacy cases have been won by the plaintiffs, forcing states to reconsider school funding formulas. However a court ruling is often not enough to ensure that school funding is increased sufficiently for poor schools.
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 the start of 2013, ten states were facing lawsuits for inadequate or inequitable funding of schools, including Texas which had been sued six times before.
Also in January, a three-judge panel in a Kansas District Court is expected to rule on a lawsuit arguing that the state isn’t spending enough on education. And this spring, the Colorado Supreme Court will review last year’s District Court ruling that the state’s funding system is “unconscionable” and does not meet the state constitution’s requirements for a “thorough and uniform” education system. If they lose in court, Colorado and Kansas might have to spend billions more on education.
In 2003 the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the state was not fulfilling its responsibility to provide a minimal standard of high school education to all students because of deficient funding by the state to schools in New York City. One in five of these schools, which are mainly attended by poor black and Latino students don’t have gymnasiums, more than half don’t have playgrounds.
The very people who are crying poverty as they deny gyms and playgrounds to the city’s schoolchildren – starting with billionaire major of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and the governor, George Pataki – are pulling out every stop in an effort to round up and hand over hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to their friend Woody [billionaire Robert Wood Johnson IV] so he can have the grandest, most luxurious, most expensive sports stadium the country has ever seen.
After 13 years of litigation the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that the state must spend at least $1.93 billion extra on public schools in New York City each year.
Despite the lawsuits, 17 states cut school funding in 2002 and at least 12 made cuts in 2003 because of dwindling state revenues and an unwillingness to increase taxes. These cuts are despite the fact that the public tends to view public education as a top priority, according to the polls, and tends to be opposed to school funding cuts. Bob Herbert noted in a New York Times editorial:
There’s something surreal about the fact that the United States of America, the richest, most powerful nation in history, can’t provide a basic school education for all of its children… Without giving the costs much thought, we’ll spend hundreds of billions of dollars on an oil-powered misadventure in the Middle East. But we won’t scrape together the money for sufficient textbooks or teachers, or even in some cases, to keep the doors open at public schools in struggling districts from Boston on the East Coast to Portland on the West.
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