Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Supreme Court Gets School Funding Right

Alfred A. Lindseth, Eric A. Hanushek
Published Date: 
September 15, 2009
Education Next

One sleeper in the flurry of decisions at the end of the last U.S. Supreme Court term has to be the decision in Horne v. Flores, a long-running Arizona case about funding special programs for English Language Learners (ELL). In overturning lower court decisions calling for continued court-ordered school spending without regard to student outcomes, the Court may lead to a new era of more rational and effective court involvement in school funding policies. Few people have yet to notice it, but it may be the final blow to the faltering movement to have courts actively involved in school appropriations.

To understand the importance of the Flores ruling, it is necessary to trace the involvement of courts in school funding. In the early 1970s, the federal courts ordered a number of states to pay school desegregation costs, but these rulings were limited in number and had little overall effect on state systems for school funding. At the same time, litigants attempted to bring “equity cases” in federal courts designed to eliminate spending variations among school districts due to heavy reliance on the local property tax. However, this effort failed in 1973 as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling in San Antonio v. Rodriquez that such claims did not have a basis under federal equal protection laws.

Litigants then shifted their efforts to the state courts where they were much more successful. To date, some 45 states have had their funding systems challenged under the education clauses of the state constitutions. With time, as more and more states moved to equalize funding, the “equity” suits morphed into “adequacy” suits, which changed the goal to increased funding. As such, they necessarily impinge upon state legislatures’ traditional authority to determine the level of education appropriations. These lawsuits enjoyed considerable success in the 1990s, when a number of state courts ordered legislatures to dramatically increase school appropriations.

The underlying argument is simple: Students are not reaching desired achievement levels so it must reflect a lack of adequate funding. Unfortunately, the courts never asked the more relevant question: Is increased funding the solution to improving student achievement?

When we set out to answer this question in our recent book (Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses), we found that court orders for substantially increased school funding seldom resulted in improvement in student performance. This was the case in Kentucky, New Jersey, and Wyoming, where billions of dollars of increased funding did not significantly improve student achievement relative to that in other states. Only in Massachusetts, where more fundamental changes in standards, accountability, and other aspects of school policy were incorporated with increased appropriations, did students tend to do significantly better following court intervention.

The Supreme Court took notice of this analysis and applied these hard-earned lessons in Flores. Beginning with a 1992 decision, the Federal court in Arizona had ruled that the State had not taken “appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs” as required under the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. It then directed the state legislature to appropriate additional monies for ELL students, first in schools in Nogales and subsequently in all schools in Arizona. Over the next several years, the state not only increased ELL funding but also significantly changed its ELL programs. After achievement of ELL students improved, the State argued that the original circumstances had changed and that the State should be released from judicial supervision. In a series of actions, the lower courts held that, even though there was improvement in student outcomes, the central issue remained whether the legislature should enact even greater increases in funding.

The Supreme Court reversed in Horne v. Flores. It noted that the lower court decision “withdraws the authority of state and local officials to fund and implement ELL programs that best suit Nogales’ needs, and measures effective programming solely in terms of adequate incremental funding.” After reviewing the programmatic changes made for ELL students in Nogales, the Court reached the conclusion that “the weight of research suggests these types of local reforms, much more than court imposed funding mandates, lead to improved educational opportunities.”

The Supreme Court’s decision forcefully makes a set of extraordinarily important points. First, educational opportunity is better defined in terms of student outcomes. Second, pedagogical and administrative reforms are often more important than court-ordered funding mandates, which it found had not been very successful. And, third, such judicial funding decisions inappropriately intrude upon the power of states and localities to set their own public priorities and to make appropriate decisions.

While U.S. Supreme Court decisions on a federal statute do not necessarily bind state courts, its well-argued position should be influential. State courts, previously intervening significantly into state educational policy making, pushed up spending without commensurate results in student performance. Most recently, increasing numbers of state courts have themselves become skeptical about the appropriateness of intervening into school policy making and setting of appropriations. And, today there are few state cases currently active, up from a large number always active over the past two decades. The Flores decision almost certainly will reinforce and strengthen this desirable trend.