Districts are building momentum for a third wave of lawsuits challenging states’ funding of schools.
The wave follows in the footsteps of previous lawsuits brought against states, triggered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez to keep the jurisdiction and management of public school finance systems in the hands of state and local leaders.
Many eyes are on Pennsylvania, where the Commonwealth Court took on a high-profile case initially filed against the state in 2014 by six school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP-PA State Conference and a group of public school parents. The suit claims the state “forced Pennsylvania’s poorest residents to bear the brunt” of budget cuts.
Plaintiffs in William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Department of Education tie student outcomes to funding levels and claim funding gaps widened between districts as a result of a $1 billion cut in 2011. The state education budget cut was used to offset the previous year’s spending freeze ordered by then-Gov. Tom Corbett. The lawsuit also claims the state’s school financing system, which relies heavily on local taxes and less on state dollars, led to reduced instructional programming, increased class sizes and teachers being laid off in poorer districts.
That line of reasoning is not uncommon for recent school funding lawsuits brought against states, said Andrew Armagost, director of advocacy and analytics for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. It also builds on arguments in lawsuits from previous years that focused on adequate and equitable funding, he added.
“Now that we have these as national policies — standardized testing and various other types of programs — there are data points upon which you could measure outcomes,” Armagost said. “And so they're aligning the inputs of funding with the outcomes of performance.”
'Caste inequality' alleged
Another school funding lawsuit is unfolding in Washington's Wahkiakum School District, claiming the state’s allegedly scarce funding makes public schools “a perpetuator of caste inequality.” It argues the state does not provide enough funding to maintain school infrastructure and facilities, and prevents the district from providing students with an opportunity to meet Washington’s education standards.
The small district of fewer than 500 students hired attorney Thomas Ahearne, who argued successfully for the school district in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case McCleary v. State of Washington. In that 2012 case, the justices decided Washington had violated its state constitution by inadequately funding its public schools.
According to SchoolFunding.info, which tracks school funding court decisions by state, courts in the majority of states have protected the equitable and adequate funding of K-12 schools, while only five states’ highest courts have issued no decision. In six states, including Pennsylvania, courts have recognized the right to an equitably and adequately funded education but have not yet enforced it.
“I think there's been a shift in the way we look at school finance and in the way that some of the states have addressed education funding,” said Armagost.
However, 14 states have still ruled against a legally enforceable right to an adequate and equitable education, according to SchoolFunding.info.
Suits come as states propose tax cuts
The lawsuits — which are a permutation of similar suits that previously compelled states across the nation to provide equitable funding — come at a time when many local lawmakers have proposed various tax cuts, worrying public school advocates of a potential domino effect that could strain K-12 funding.
States where legislators have proposed trimming taxes include Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and West Virginia, according to the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities.
Five of those states pondering tax cuts have either no court decision on a legally enforceable right to an adequate and equitable education or have chosen to not recognize that right, meaning underfunded districts in a handful of those states likely could not force their leaders into increased funding based on that argument.
Tax cuts, if passed, could go into effect as soon as the next fiscal year, said Michael Leachman, vice president for state fiscal policy at CBPP.
And while a flood of federal COVID-19 relief aid is currently holding states accountable for maintaining equitable spending across high-poverty districts, those requirements will dissipate as federal funds dry up.
“You're setting yourself up for even more underfunded schools in some states than previously,” said Leachman.
However, maintenance of effort provisions remain for those receiving Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds, requiring states and districts to provide at least 90% of their previous year’s education spending levels.
Inadequate state formulas an 'outdated' argument?
Marguerite Roza, an education finance expert and director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, disputes the idea that states are drastically underfunding high-poverty school districts and creating an acute funding gap. “The idea that our entire funding formula is based around property taxes is sort of an outdated and oversimplified explanation of what's going on,” Roza said.
Instead, many states have in place formulas meant to balance out where local districts fall short in funding high-poverty schools, according to the Urban Institute, a research think tank that analyzed state school spending formulas.Thirty-five states target funds for low-income students, the Urban Institute found.
With federal funding included, almost all states allocate slightly more to low-income students than their wealthier peers, according to the Urban Institute analysis. Three states — Alaska, New Jersey and Ohio — are considered “highly progressive” in their allocations for low-income students, while most are considered weakly progressive in their formulas.
Only three — Wyoming, Nevada and Illinois — are considered “weakly regressive” in their overall allocations for low-income students.
Now, some hope lawsuits revive the attention on underfunded schools.
“If only by the light it shines on the issue, we hope the case results in spurring improvements in the K-12 funding system,” said Sean Duke, spokesperson for the Washington State School Directors’ Association.