By Molly Hunter
As of March 2018, school funding lawsuits challenging inadequate education resources, outcomes and opportunities, especially for at-risk students, continue in state trial, appellate and supreme courts across the country. States with active litigation or outstanding court orders include Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington.
As the nation’s legal defense fund for public education rights, Education Law Center monitors, supports and, in some states, participates as counsel or as amicus curiae (friend of the court) in these lawsuits.
Below is a brief summary of cases in the states:
- Washington: In McCleary v. State (2012 and 2017), the Supreme Court has retained jurisdiction. After earlier decisions in this case, the legislature enacted funding reforms, which the court found insufficient to remedy the constitutional violations. On March 8, 2018, the legislature passed a supplementary budget that raises school funding significantly, believing that this change will satisfy the constitution’s requirements.
- Kansas: As in Washington, the Kansas Supreme Court has retained jurisdiction in Gannon v. State (2014 and 2017). Also in March, the Kansas Legislature received an education cost study estimating the need for a $2 billion increase in school funding to meet student performance targets. The legislature faces an April deadline set by the Kansas Supreme Court to adopt measures to adequately fund K-12 education.
- Both the Washington and Kansas supreme courts will review the legislative response for compliance with their respective constitutions and court decrees.
- Delaware: In January 2018, parents and other Delaware citizens filed the state’s first constitutional challenge to inadequate school funding in Delawareans for Educational Opportunity (DEO) and NAACP Delaware v. Carney. The Delaware constitution requires the state to provide a “general and efficient system of free public schools.” Plaintiffs are asking the court to declare education a fundamental right and that the current state financing laws violate students’ right to the opportunity for an adequate education. The State’s response to the complaint is expected in April.
- New York: In late 2017, ELC joined the legal team in NYSER v. State of New York, a pending case in which the parent plaintiffs allege that the State’s chronic underfunding of their schools has deprived their children of essential education resources, including teachers, reasonable class sizes, social workers and interventions for at-risk students. The parents contend that the lack of essential resources and poor outcomes for students are the result of the State’s funding failures. In June 2017, the Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court, denied the State’s motion to dismiss and remanded the case for trial. The NYSER parent plaintiffs are from the New York City, Syracuse, Schenectady, Central Islip and Gouverneur school districts.
In October 2017, in Maisto v. State of New York, the Appellate Division reversed the lower court’s dismissal, after trial, of the parents’ claims that their eight “Small City” school districts were unconstitutionally underfunded by the state. The Court reaffirmed the framework established in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) rulings for analyzing claims of violations of the New York Constitution’s Education Article. The Appellate Division remanded the case to the trial court for specific findings on inputs and causation.
- Pennsylvania: In September 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to follow prior court precedent and denied the State’s motion to dismiss, in William Penn Sch. Dist. v. Pennsylvania Dep’t of Education. The case is a challenge to inadequate resources, outcomes and funding in the state’s higher poverty districts. The Supreme Court remanded the case for a trial on the merits. Legislative leaders opposed to the lawsuit have filed another round of motions to dismiss and block a trial on the merits. The motions were recently argued in the trial court, with a decision expected shortly.
- New Mexico: The trial in the consolidated cases Martinez v. State of New Mexico and Yazzie v. State concluded recently, and the parties await the trial court’s ruling. The plaintiffs claim the State denies children’s constitutional right to access equal educational opportunities resulting from a severe lack of quality teachers and leaders in schools disproportionately serving English Learner (EL) and low-income students. Plaintiffs also presented evidence that the State’s failure to support and implement its own unique laws – the Indian Education Act, the Hispanic Education Act, and the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act – deprives students of the cultural programs that are essential to a sufficient education, as required under the New Mexico Constitution.
- Arizona: In May 2017, Arizona plaintiffs filed Glendale Elementary Sch. Dist. v. State, alleging the State’s system for funding school facilities is unconstitutional. Plaintiffs won a similar case in Hull Albrecht (AZ 1998), resulting in the State establishing standards for school facilities and allocating funds to bring school buildings up to those standards. After tax cuts over the last ten years, plaintiffs claim that State funding is now far from sufficient, and many buildings have fallen below the standards.
- Florida: The plaintiffs in Citizens for Strong Schools (CSS) v. State of Florida have filed a petition in the Florida Supreme Court requesting review of a 2017 intermediate appellate court ruling. The appellate court affirmed a trial court ruling that claims under the detailed education article in the Florida constitution raise purely political questions left to the elected branches of the state government and, therefore, not appropriate for court adjudication.
- Tennessee: In 2015 and 2016, several Tennessee school districts filed lawsuits against the State, beginning with Hamilton County Bd. of Education v. Haslam and Shelby County Bd. of Educ. v. Haslam. The districts maintain that the State school funding system is inadequate and violates the Tennessee constitution. Motions to dismiss the complaints are pending.
- North Carolina: In 2017, the parties in the long-running school funding case, Leandro v. State of North Carolina (also known as Hoke County v. State), agreed to the appointment of an independent educational expert to devise remedies for the State’s violation of its constitution by identifying additional steps the state should take to ensure qualified teachers, school leaders and resources to provide all North Carolina children a constitutional “sound basic education.” The expert’s report is due by the end of 2018.
- Maryland: In the 1990s in Maryland, parents and students in the Baltimore City school district filed Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Educ., alleging that the State failed to provide resources for students to meet contemporary education standards. Before trial, the parties settled and entered into a consent decree. That decree is still in force, and the plaintiffs are awaiting the results from a new commission, called the Kirwin Commission, to determine whether the state will address the chronic underfunding of the state’s funding formula. Absent such progress, plaintiffs may move to reopen the Bradford case.
- New Jersey: Finally, in New Jersey, several key orders by the Supreme Court in the Abbott v. Burke lawsuit remain under implementation by the state. These include the court’s 2008 ruling (Abbott XX) directing state implementation of a weighted student funding formula; the rulings in 2000 (Abbott VI) and 2002 (Abbott VIII) directing implementation of high quality preschool; and the rulings in 1998 (Abbott V) and 2000 (Abbott VII) requiring state financing of school building improvements. In the event of state non-compliance, these orders remain enforceable by the court on application by plaintiffs.
Molly Hunter, Esquire, is Of Counsel at Education Law Center
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications