Out of Control Policy Blog

Education Funding Lawsuit Unlikely to Improve Education Outcomes in California

The state of California will soon be sued for not funding its schools adequately.

As the San Jose Mercury News reports:

Top California school leaders said they soon will sue the state over chronically underfunded schools—a move that in other states has infused billions of dollars into school systems.

California spends $35.7 billion, or about 30 percent of its budget, on its 1,000 public K-12 schools. Like other state programs, education has suffered waves of cuts in two years as state revenues have shrunk. In per-pupil spending, California ranks anywhere from 30th to 47th among states, depending on how cost of living is adjusted.

The California Constitution requires the Legislature "to provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported." The suit will allege that the state violates that provision by not ensuring adequate support.

Given its low ranking in spending plus recent cuts, "nobody can rationally assert that the system is adequately supported," said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Association, which he said will file suit by the end of the year.

The important point in the Mercury News story is this:

How effective the suits have been is a matter of dispute.

Hanushek maintains that when courts have intervened, "We do not see any gains in student achievement."

In fact, Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth have a new book out, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America's Public Schools that sheds light on the depressing futility of adequacy lawsuits. 

In addition, Education Next, has a must read debate with Eric Hanushek, Alfred Lindseth, and Michael Rebell that answers the question:  Many Schools Are Still Inadequate, Now What?

Here is one small excerpt that summarizes what has happened in other states where education advocates have sued for large increases in education funding:

Beginning in the early 1970s, advocacy groups, frustrated with legislative efforts, began turning to the courts, initially to seek more equity in the allocation of education funds and later to seek vastly increased appropriations from state legislatures through “educational adequacy” lawsuits based on vaguely worded state constitutional provisions. A significant number of state courts responded positively to plaintiffs’ pleas and ordered unprecedented increases in K—12 funding in their states. Unfortunately, basic problems in the underlying systems of delivering education services were often ignored. In this sense, the courts mirrored what had been going on in the state legislatures, and the results were, not surprisingly, much the same: large amounts of money expended, but little or no improvement in student outcomes. An analysis in our recently published book examines the NAEP test-score trends in the four states that have implemented court remedies the longest, and demonstrates that, despite spending increases amounting to billions of dollars, the achievement patterns in three of them—Wyoming, New Jersey, and Kentucky—are largely unchanged from what they were in the early 1990s, before the court-ordered remedies commenced. Only in Massachusetts, where much deeper and broader reforms were instituted, has there been some improvement, although even there the state’s black students have not benefited from the remedy. 

Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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