Quixotic Quest for Court Ruling on Detroit’s Dreadfully Underfunded Schools
An op ed article by Geoffrey Stone in last week’s NYTimes reported that a team of lawyers has filed a suit on behalf of a group of Detroit MI students claiming that schools in that city are unconstitutionally underfunded and, therefore, deny them “the right to a minimally adequate education”. The article offers a history of similar cases, highlighting the 1973 Rodriquez case where a student sued the San Antonio school district because they failed to provide an adequate education due to their inability to raise sufficient taxes as compared to other affluent communities— a suit that attempted to compel Texas to change its funding that was based primarily on property taxes. The Supreme Court upheld Texas’ funding based on the logic that “…the law was constitutional because it served a rational policy of permitting each school district to decide for itself how much money to spend on education.”
As Mr. Stone notes, this decision did not address the issue of whether the level of education was at least minimally adequate in the state’s poorest schools, and that is what the Detroit case hopes to get a ruling on. Stone’s article then includes these telling paragraphs:
In what is likely to be the opening chapter in a long legal saga, a federal district judge in Michigan must determine if a state can constitutionally provide a vast majority of its students with an excellent or at least adequate education while a minority of students receive an education that denies them the chance to acquire the minimum skills the court spoke of 43 years ago in Rodriguez.
Even if a state is not constitutionally obligated to provide all of its children with an equal education, it should surely be constitutionally required to provide them with at least an education that gives them the chance to learn the most basic skills to succeed.
Given the time frame required to get a case to the Supreme Court, assuming that this issue will end up at that level, and given the subsequent delays in implementing even a favorable decision (see several previous posts on Washington State’s court decision on funding and the multi-generational delays in implementing Brown v. Board of Education), fling a lawsuit like this seems like a costly and arguably ineffective way to achieve equity. I, for one, applaud the attorneys who are pursuing this quixotic case because no matter the outcome it will serve as a reminder to those in Michigan that their current funding system is shortchanging a large number of students raised in poverty and may serve as a reminder in several other States that are doing the same thing. I grew up with the now naive notion that everyone had an equal opportunity in this country and hope to see that notion rekindled and reinforced in the public at large in the near future. Cases like this might help to achieve that result.