As 2013 comes to a close, a dozen states are in court defending against claims that their school funding systems are inadequate and unfair and cause damaging resource deficits in many school districts. More cases may be filed next year.
The leading cases include Gannon v. State in Kansas and McCleary v. State in Washington. The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to issue a seminal ruling in early January 2014. Proceedings are ongoing in Washington, where the state supreme court has retained jurisdiction to monitor the legislature's phase-in of its remedy for Washington's unconstitutional funding system.
In Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, New York and Texas, cases are moving toward trial. In California and Rhode Island, cases are on appeal after lower court decisions on state motions to dismiss (called a demur in California). The parties in South Carolina continue to wait for a decision from the state supreme court, and the North Carolina case, now focused on preschool, has returned to the trial court.
Due to a large tax cut for well-to-do Kansans, the State declared that it did not have enough revenue for schools and cut funding dramatically. Parents and school districts filed Gannon v. State, alleging that the cuts violated the Kansas Constitution's education article. A three-judge panel heard the evidence and issued a strongly worded unanimous decision in favor of plaintiffs.
"The current formula simply needs to be funded," said John Robb, co-lead counsel for plaintiffs. "No formula will work if it is not adequately funded."
The state appealed the decision, and the Kansas Supreme Court's ruling is expected in early January.
Separately, a Kansas "anti-equity" case is in federal court, where the district court will apply a "rational basis test" to plaintiffs' claim that the state cap on Local Option Budgets violates the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.
In 2012, after the Washington Supreme Court found the state's school funding system violated the state constitution, the court retained jurisdiction and is requiring the legislature to report periodically on its progress towards full constitutional compliance by 2018. This monitoring appears to be influencing legislative actions towards compliance.
After the trial court ruled in favor of plaintiffs in early 2013, the legislature restored about $3.5 billion in annual state education funding, which had been cut by over $5 billion in 2011. The trial court then decided to reconvene the parties so that the record on appeal will include evidence on the partial restoration. See Slam Dunk Victory for Texas School Children.
Earlier this year, California significantly improved its school funding system, which now has the potential to distribute state funds much more equitably. However, the new formula does not solve California's state aid problem: the significant underfunding of schools serving students in preschool through 12th grade.
Two lawsuits challenging the state's funding system have been consolidated
and are on appeal, after the trial court granted the state's demur (motion
to dismiss). Previous coverage is available here.
Florida and New York
The parties in Citizens for Strong Schools v. State of Florida and in Maisto v. State of New York are preparing for their respective trials, scheduled for 2014. Both sets of plaintiffs won court rulings that denied State defendants' motions to dismiss.
In a new challenge to the state school funding system, Deer/Mt. Judea School District v. Beebe, the Arkansas Supreme Court remanded several issues for trial in October 2013.
The state supreme court's failure to issue timely rulings is part of the discussion during the South Carolina legislature's current process for selecting the court's next chief justice. The supreme court heard oral argument in the school funding case, Abbeville v. State, in September 2012, and the decision is still pending.
Plaintiffs in Flores v. Horne have appealed the federal district court's latest decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Background on this case is available here.
Educational equity cases are being considered in at least two states where the state school funding systems allegedly provide insufficient funds and distribute them inequitably. The potential plaintiffs allege that their states are denying many students the opportunity for an adequate education, which is required under their state constitutions.
English Learners, Students with Disabilities, Vouchers, and Discrimination
Related civil rights complaints against school discipline practices that deny access to education, high school admissions procedures that concentrate high-needs students in certain schools, and other forms of discrimination are also moving through courts or administrative complaint processes. Federal courts continue to oversee compliance with long-standing desegregation orders in some school districts. And a number of special education claims are emerging due, at least in part, to insufficient federal and state funding.
A variety of cases claim violations of federal laws that require educational opportunities for students learning English, such as Flores v. State in Arizona, and students with disabilities, such as P.B. v. Pastorek in Louisiana. Other cases seek enforcement of state constitutional provisions that prohibit public funding of religious schools, such as Duncan v. State of New Hampshire, and state laws that require programs and services for certain groups of students, such as S.S. v. State of Michigan. On behalf of English learners, Doe v. State of California, which has settled, sought compliance with the state constitution, a federal statute, and state administrative responsibilities to enforce that federal law.
Be sure to check the Education Justice website and follow these ELC national e-news alerts for ongoing developments in these cases.