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Can State Courts Fix Inequitable Funding? Only if State Legislatures Raise Taxes

August 24, 2018

The NYTimes Dana Goldstein wrote an article earlier this week with an arguably misleading title: “How Do You Get Better Schools? Take the State to Court More Advocates Say“. in the article Goldstein describes the recent emergence of lawsuits being brought by parents and advocacy groups as a result of the presentation of data illustrating that districts with low per pupil spending do far worse on state standardized tests than districts with higher per pupil spending. While I take perverse pleasure in the fact that these test results are being used to hoist legislators seeking to “prove” that public education is failing, based on the experience of parents in my home state of New Hampshire I am not convinced that any parent taking a state to court will receive any benefit for their child. Why? Because over the past 30 years two sets of parents have taken the legislature to court and won and the per pupil spending in the state is more disparate now than it was when the first suit was launched. And as Goldstein’s article indicates, NH is no anomaly. Every state whose funding models are challenged in court fights back and the legislatures invariably drag their feet in taking action… and as a result any changes in funding take years if they happen at all.

The sad reality is that voters in our country SAY they believe in creating a system where every child has a fair chance at success, but they refuse to adopt funding formulas that make it possible for that to be true. Rather, they point to a small cohort of children who become successful even though they are educated in underfunded schools and use that as evidence that every child in those schools has the ability to be a successful learner. Why? Because that enables them to claim that funding inequities are not the problem. Instead, the success of a handful of students is evidence that the problem with underfunded schools is the lack of money, it’s the lack of gumption on the part of students, or the lack of good teachers, or the lack of high expectations, or the lack of engaged parents.

And here’s another sad reality: courts cannot mandate a change in thinking on the part of voters or legislators… nor can they change their hearts. As long as voters seek cheap and easy solutions to complicated problems and legislators persuade them that the “free market” IS a cheap and easy solution court cases will make no difference.

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