Judicial Funding Mandates Related to Education Sharply Decline

Eric A. Hanushek
Alfred A. Lindseth
Published Date
Fall 2009
State Courts Project, Federalist Society
Over the last 40 years, the state courts have become important players in the funding of America’s public schools.1 During this period, only a handful of states have escaped state court scrutiny over the allocation and amount of funding they devote to their K-12 schools. Initially, these state court orders focused on the allocation of money between school districts, requiring many states to change their education financing systems to more equitably distribute school funding. These “equity” cases were designed to eliminate wide disparities in per pupil funding among school districts arising from heavy reliance on local property taxes to finance the operation of the schools and the often significant differences between the tax bases of property-poor districts and property-rich districts. Beginning in the late 1980s, state courts also began to inquire into the “adequacy” of funding under state constitutional provisions requiring states to provide some level of education to their young citizens. even though constitutional requirements are typically vaguely defined, if at all, plaintiffs were very successful in these adequacy lawsuits for a decade and a half, and a number of states were ordered to substantially increase their appropriations for K-12 education. These decisions are illustrated perhaps most dramatically by a New York case in which a Manhattan judge directed the state legislature to increase annual funding for the New York City public schools by $5.6 billion a year, an almost 40% increase.2 Needless to say, court involvement in the legislative appropriations process raises fundamental questions under the separation of powers doctrine, since decisions about educational policy and appropriations have historically fallen within the exclusive domain of the legislative and executive branches of government.