Stateline Story

Education Funding Draws New Lawsuits, Ballot Initiatives

  • August 20, 2003
  • By Pamela Prah

A new chapter in school funding is opening across the country, as the issue increasingly becomes a topic for the ballot box as well as the courthouse.

At least 18 states are mired in legal challenges over the way they fund education and more litigation is in the offing in North Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska and Kentucky. At the same time, voters in at least three states Arkansas, Maine and New Mexico are slated to go to the polls to consider changing the way their states pay for education.

Education funding is always a hot issue, primarily because education takes up the biggest chunk of a state budget. But a "newer trend" hitting states is to simply let voters decide how their states should finance education, said Michael Griffith, a policy analyst with the school finance project at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group made up of state education officials.

Voters' concerns about education and recent court decisions have landed education funding on the ballot in the following states:

  • Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said Aug. 13 that "within a month" he expects to have "finalizing plans" for a November 2004 ballot initiative to respond to a court decision that declared his state's current school funding structure unconstitutional. Huckabee wants to consolidate some rural school districts to save money. 
  • In Maine, the Legislature will convene during a special session Aug. 21 to consider whether to put on the November 2003 ballot Gov. John Baldacci's proposal to boost state education. Maine voters already have one education funding initiative to consider this fall from citizens. Both plans would require the Legislature to pay at least 55 percent of the costs of public education, up from the current 43 percent, but the citizen initiative would make the increase effective in one year and Baldacci's plan would phase it in over five years. 
  • In New Mexico, voters will decide Sept. 23 whether to increase from 4.7 percent to 5.0 to 5.8 percent the level of money from the state's "permanent fund" that goes to classrooms and create a secretary of education who would answer directly to the governor.

Far more common for states are school funding lawsuits and here too experts see a new twist. Education experts say the trend among states to lay out test scores and other performance measures for students and schools makes it easier for states to be sued. If states establish performance measures, then states should provide enough money for all schools to meet those measures. The legal actions are dubbed "adequacy" education lawsuits.

That's a shift from the 1970s and 1980s when the focus of education funding lawsuits were over "equity" or the way the state divvied up money among rich and poor districts, experts said.

The spate of adequacy lawsuits are "one of the unintended consequences of standard-based reform, from a state policymaker's perspective," said Steve Smith, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. The NCSL predicts states could face even more adequacy lawsuits because of the new federal No Child Left Behind law that sets out new testing and reporting requirements.

"A lot of state lawmakers across the nation will face adequacy lawsuits," said Charlotte Postlewaite, chief education policy analyst at The Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky.

States often lose in adequacy cases. Advocates who filed school funding adequacy lawsuits have won 18 of 28 cases since 1989, said Molly A. Hunter, director of Advocacy Center for Children's Educational Success with Standards (ACCESS), a group of attorneys and educators that promotes education finance lawsuits. ACCESS is a project of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which filed a lawsuit against New York's education funding system.

Within six months, groups of school districts in North Dakota and Missouri will point to inadequate and inequitable funding in their lawsuits while the cases in Nebraska and Kentucky would follow other lawsuits filed earlier this year in both of those states, according to ACCESS.

Here's a roundup of other major education financing litigation:

  • Massachusetts - A court in Boston will hear testimony through October over the adequacy of education given to four school districts. 
  • New Jersey The state's highest court in July allowed the state, for the second year in row, to freeze the amount of money provided to 30 poorer school districts that the state is supposed to boost funding under a previous court order.
  • New York The state's highest court in June ruled that the state was not giving enough money to New York City schools and ordered the state to revamp its funding system by July 30, 2004. 
  • South Carolina Opening arguments began in July in the school-funding lawsuit that challenges the way the state funds public schools.

Tags: Education