Abbott v. Burke

The Abbott v. Burke case began a new wave of approaching school funding issues through an adequacy framework, which in some cases let states off the hook for providing students the bare minimum when it came to per-pupil funding. However, in Abbott, what made the decision considered to be a success was the ability to define the level of funding and resources needed to provide equitable educational opportunity (Martin et al., 2018). In 1981, the New Jersey Education Law Center filed a complaint on behalf of 20 children attending New Jersey public schools across four cities—Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City—arguing that the state’s finance system disadvantaged students in these low-income districts and that funding disparities contributed to the districts’ inability to provide an adequate education. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled the finance system to be unconstitutional and directed the state legislature to implement a funding system that would ensure urban districts (31 in total) received funding equivalent to that of wealthier districts. While the initial Abbott ruling and subsequent mandates put New Jersey in the spotlight as the only state to equalize education resources between low-wealth and affluent districts, there would later be numerous motions filed in the court around the timing of the ruling’s implementation and other disagreements (Education Law Center, 2019). However, the court’s consistency in enforcing funding equalization as well as providing more resources to underresourced schools, and even recently focusing on school quality, has assisted in improving conditions in low-income districts (Martin et al., 2018).

Rose v. Council for Better Education

While the Abbott case saw the beginning of approaching school funding litigation through an adequacy lens, Rose v. Council for Better Education became the leading and most recognized adequacy case in the United States. Indeed, since the Rose decision, adequacy has been a key feature in school funding cases. In 1989, the Kentucky Supreme Court found that the state’s finance system was in violation of its constitution and that every student should be provided with an adequate education. The court also acknowledged that education is a fundamental right under the state’s constitution. The decision led to the state completely overhauling its education system. In this new system, the court ruled that the goal should be for students to become “sufficient” in the following:

  • (1) oral and written communication skills to function in a complex and changing society;
  • (2) knowledge of economic, social, and political systems so that informed choices can be made;
  • (3) understanding of governmental processes to become engaged citizens;
  • (4) understanding of mental and physical well-being for oneself and others;
  • (5) grounding in the arts to be appreciative of cultural and historical heritage;
  • (6) training or preparation for advanced training in academic or vocational fields; and

(7) academic or vocational skills to be able to compete in academics or the job market. (Education Law Center, 2019, n.p.)

The Kentucky Legislature responded with the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), a sweeping reform that brought changes to finance, governance, and curriculum. Since KERA was implemented, an additional 26 states have enacted school funding reforms (Lafortune, Rothstein, & Schanzenbach, 2016).

Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York

In another case based on adequate funding, in 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a non-profit organization created by parents to protect and promote New York students’ basic educational rights, filed a lawsuit claiming the New York school finance system was unconstitutional due to its underfunding of New York City schools. As a result of the underfunding, students were being denied their right to an “opportunity” for a “sound basic education,” defined as “a meaningful high school education, one which prepares [young people] to function productively as civic participants” under the state constitution {Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, 2003, p. 26). After 13 years, the Court of Appeals eventually ordered New York to ensure that a funding system was in place to provide students with an adequate education. Yet, the timing of the decision could not have been worse as the U.S. was experiencing an economic crisis due to the Great Recession of 2008. Similar to other states, budget cuts were made in New York that caused school funding to decrease and none of the funds owed under the lawsuit were ever provided. Advocates argue that schools in New York are still owed over $4 billion (Disare, 2018).

Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico

One final, and very recent, school finance case we highlight is the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico (2018). According to Hinojosa (2016), the Yazzie/Martinez case is different from its predecessors as it takes a more comprehensive approach to challenging inequitable educational opportunity and looking at inequities as they connect to race, ethnicity, and language in addition to arguing for students with more needs. In 2014, families and school districts in New Mexico sued the state’s department of education for not providing a sufficient education system to all children in the state—particularly Native American, English learner (EL), low-income, and students with disabilities— as required by the New Mexico State Constitution and the resources needed to succeed academically (Hinojosa, 2016). Four years later, in July 2018, a New Mexicojudge ruled that the state was failing to comply with the state constitution (New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, 2018). Specifically, the state was found to not be in compliance with state and federal laws around the education of EL and Native American students, including the New Mexico Indian Education Act, Bilingual Multicultural Education Act, and the Hispanic Education Act. The state was also found to not be in compliance with providing students with programs and services to prepare them to be college and career ready, and was not providing the correct oversight of the programs and services. The judge ordered the state to come up with the funding needed to provide New Mexico students with a sufficient education that would help prepare them for college and the workforce (NM Center on Law and Poverty, 2018). The case addresses the numerous systemic issues that prevent students from receiving a sufficient education, including lack of necessary resources and monitoring how funding that was received was spent, as well as curricular issues such as bilingualism and multiculturalism. While past school finance cases have focused more on equity and adequacy of funding and have been successful in increasing resources for students in low-wealth districts, they have been less successful in ensuring that these same students are able to access a high-quality education. Indeed, more school finance cases like Yazzie/Martinez are needed that push the school equity debate beyond just funding and also look at the quality of educational opportunities (Martin et al., 2018).

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