Children in low-wealth urban and rural communities typically face major obstacles to a good education. For example, high quality pre-K is rarely available for them. So, the achievement gap is already in place when students enter school. Also, schools serving disadvantaged students often lack basic educational resources, such as adequate buildings, enough books and computers, and well-prepared and experienced teachers.
Even though they tax themselves at higher rates, low-wealth communities are often unable to generate sufficient funds for their schools. At the same time, state funding usually falls short of enabling them to provide basic educational resources for their children. Some states even distribute funds in ways that worsen resource inequities.
Litigation for Education Justice
Educational opportunity legal actions seek quality education for all children, especially the low-income and minority children currently being denied this opportunity in many states. Education justice is the goal, whether plaintiffs ask for:
- Integration, in Brown v. Board of Education (U.S. Supreme Court 1954)
- High quality pre-K, in Abbott v. Burke (New Jersey 1998)
- Ending the “school to prison pipeline,” such as in King v. Beaufort Bd. of Educ.(2009)
- Adequate English language instruction, in Flores v. Arizona (2009)
- Decent school buildings, such as in Kasayulie v. State (Alaska 1999)
- Equal funding, such as in Brigham v. State (Vt. 1997), or
- Sufficient funding, in Montoy v. State (Kan. 2006), among many such litigations
- Plaintiffs preparing for trial in Texas, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Connecticut
- Court decisions in Washington, Colorado, and North Carolina
- New cases filed in California and Texas
- Remand hearing held after U.S. Supreme Court decision in Flores v. Arizona
- Growing efforts by voucher and for-profit charter proponents, and
- State funding cuts and legal challenges to the cuts, e.g. in Kansas and New Jersey
School Funding Litigation History
While a Massachusetts court decided the first litigation for fair school funding in 1819, the modern era of these cases began with decisions in California, New Jersey, and the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1970s’. An attempt to rely on federal equal protection for funding equity, in Rodriguez v. San Antonio, led to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that declared education is not a fundamental right under the federal constitution.
The Rodriguez plaintiffs turned to the Texas constitution and state courts and won. Since Rodriguez, plaintiffs in 45 of the 50 states have challenged school funding formulas primarily in state courts, usually suing the state under state constitutional education articles.
Each of the 50 state constitutions requires the state to provide education; Washington DC’s charter does not include the right to education. The courts rely on state constitutional history, which declares education essential to protect democracy, a republican form of government, and individual rights.
Plaintiffs have won about two-thirds of these "educational opportunity" cases over the last 22 years. Though defendant states often prevailed in cases in the 1970s and 80s based on "equal protection" and seeking equal funding, plaintiffs’ success rate improved as they began focusing on ensuring that schools had sufficient resources to educate all students.
In response to the court orders in favor of plaintiffs, states have adopted better school funding systems, instituted high quality pre-K programs, mounted major school facilities programs, and/or enacted other remedies. Because all parents and communities place high value on school funding and because the suburbs typically control more state political power, sustaining these remedies has proven challenging in many states.
Aside from litigation, advocates in a few states have successfully pursued alternative legal strategies, such as strengthening the state constitutions’ education article, in Florida, and pushing the legislature to enact a rational funding system, in Pennsylvania.
State-specific litigation information is available on individual state pages, accessible by clicking on the "State" tab at the top of this page. For general litigation information, please visit the Resources page.