State legislatures are responsible for determining how much funding school districts receive. But as more school systems and their constituents see that the legislative process leaves them short of the funds needed to provide an adequate education, they turn to the courts. Though even when a district has the law, facts and court rulings on its side, the ultimate goals sought in a legal challenge — increased funding and a more equitable distribution of that money — still may be a long way off.
For instance, in a lawsuit challenging the public-school funding system in New York, a judge set a deadline for the state legislature to deal with school funding inequities. That deadline passed more than nine months ago, and the legislature still has not acted. In Idaho, the Supreme Court has ruled the state's school finance system is unconstitutional, but the case, which first reached the Idaho Supreme Court in 1993, still is bouncing through the court system after several appeals, and no remedy is in place. In Kansas, the state Supreme Court has ruled in a 1999 case that the legislature has failed to provide suitable funding for public schools, and now the case is back before the court as the judges will determine whether the changes enacted by lawmakers this year meet the constitutional requirements.
Judges can issue legal rulings that school funding laws are unconstitutional and order legislatures to fix flawed funding formulas, but in many cases, numerous appeals and the reluctance of many lawmakers to impose the increased taxes required to solve school funding shortages mean that the inequities persist.
While school officials in inadequately funded systems wait for relief from the courts, facilities continue to deteriorate, maintenance is shortchanged, and students are deprived of resources that would allow them to compete with students in more well-heeled school systems.
Despite frustrations with the slow pace of the judicial system, legal challenges of school funding formulas are the best hope for districts and communities that believe their legislature is denying them a fair slice of the education funding pie.
“We have no other choice,” says Robert Huntley, the lead attorney for the Idaho Schools for Equal Educational Opportunity, a coalition of districts who have sued the state over school funding.