Even though they tax themselves at higher rates, low-wealth communities are often unable to generate sufficient funds for their schools. At the same time, state funding usually falls short, and some states even distribute funds in ways that worsen resource inequities. Therefore, many states face lawsuits seeking fair school funding for basic resources that children need for educational opportunity.
Litigation for Education Justice
Plaintiff and Defendant Victories, a list of cases by state
State Constitution Education Clause Language, for all 50 states
Educational opportunity legal actions seek quality education for all children, especially the low-income and minority children currently being denied this opportunity in many states. Fair funding and education justice are the goals, whether plaintiffs ask for:
- Integration, in Brown v. Board of Education (U.S. Supreme Court 1954)
- High quality pre-K, in Abbott v. Burke (N.J. 1998)
- Ending the “school to prison pipeline,” such as in King v. Beaufort Bd. of Educ. (2009)
- Adequate English language instruction, in Flores v. Arizona (2009)
- Decent school buildings, such as in Kasayulie v. State (Alaska 1999)
- Equal funding, such as in Brigham v. State (Vt. 1997), or
- Sufficient funding, in Montoy v. State (Kan. 2006), among many such litigations
School Funding Litigation History
While a Massachusetts court decided the first litigation for fair school funding in 1819, the modern era of cases began with decisions in California, New Jersey, and the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1970s. An attempt to rely on federal equal protection for funding equity, in Rodriguez v. San Antonio, led to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that declared education is not a fundamental right under the federal constitution.
The Rodriguez plaintiffs turned to the Texas constitution and state courts and won. Overall, plaintiffs in 45 of the 50 states have challenged school funding in state courts, usually suing the state under state constitutional education articles.
Each of the 50 state constitutions requires the state to provide education. The courts rely on state constitutional history, which declares education essential to sustain democracy and a republican form of government and to protect individual rights.
In most states, children in low-wealth urban and rural communities face major obstacles to a good education. For example, high quality pre-K is often not available to them. So, the achievement gap is already in place when students enter school. Also, schools serving disadvantaged students often lack basic resources, such as adequate buildings, enough books and computers, and well-prepared and experienced teachers.
Plaintiffs have won about two-thirds of these “educational opportunity” cases since 1989. In response to these court orders, states have adopted better school funding systems, instituted high quality pre-K programs, mounted major school facilities programs, and enacted other remedies. However, sustaining these remedies is challenging in many states for a variety of reasons.
Aside from litigation, advocates in a few states have successfully pursued alternative legal strategies, such as strengthening the state constitutions’ education article, in Florida.