Tag: school finance

Colorado High Court Rejects School-Finance Litigation

By a 4-2 margin, the Colorado Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit claiming that the state’s method of funding public schools is unconstitutional. It overturned a lower court ruling that had held that the current arrangement of funding fails to meet a requirement in the Colorado constitution that the state operate a “thorough and uniform” system of education. [decision in State v. Lobato via KDVR coverage

For years, pushing their Lobato case in the court of public opinion, school-spending advocates have been decrying Colorado schools as underfunded. The state has been given a series of bad ratings on education scorecards, many of which turn out on inspection to measure quality by how much money is spent—thus ensuring that Colorado, which spends less than many other states, will come off badly. This one, for example, ranks Colorado at “C-minus” for reasons that include low overall spending, low teacher salaries, and the state’s failure to fund “induction, mentoring or reduced workloads for new teachers.” 

When you measure outputs as opposed to inputs, on the other hand, the state comes off looking far better. In this ranking of SAT scores, Colorado scores 15th among the 50 states, the best performance of any Western state. In this ranking based on 4th and 8th grade testing, Colorado comes in 11th among the 50 states, trailing only Washington among Western states. 

But modern school-finance litigation only poses as being about educational quality. Its deeper mission is control—specifically, transferring control over spending from voters and their representatives to litigators whose loyalty is to a mix of ideologues and interest groups sharing a wish for higher spending. As I wrote in a draft chapter on school finance litigation cut for space from my book Schools for Misrule:

In the forty years since the pioneering Serrano v. California (California Supreme Court, 1971) school finance lawsuits have been filed in nearly every state, courts in around half the states have thrown out existing finance systems as unconstitutional, and many of them have ordered states to raise school budgets, not merely change the way in which they are financed. Vast sums have been redistributed as a result. Lawmakers in Kentucky enacted more than a billion dollars in tax hikes. New Jersey adopted its first income tax. Kansas lawmakers levied an additional $755 million in taxes after the state’s high court in peremptory fashion ordered them to double their spending on schools.

While filed on a state-by-state basis, the suits have been very much a coordinated national project. For many years their impetus came from the Ford Foundation and its various grantees, notably the American Civil Liberties Union. Furnishing, presumably, the brains of the operation, law-school-based groups have been instrumental, particularly the Education Law Center at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. …

The educational establishment had always resented the periodic need to go hat in hand – such a demeaning phrase! – to local electorates for tax and bond measures, as if the voters were somehow the bosses and they the servants. School finance litigation promised a more indulgent master, a jurist or panel of them who (it was hoped) would glance over the rows of costing-out numbers, nod appreciatively and feel good afterward about having done something for the children. … School finance litigation is the ultimate monument to the triumph of governance by litigation at the cost of democracy itself. 

Despite the victory in Colorado, there’s no reason to think this war of forty years’ duration (so far) is drawing to a close. 

Cash Rewards For Failing Schools, the Lawsuit Way

I see the editorialists of the New York Times have rhapsodically hailed last week’s 3-2 New Jersey Supreme Court opinion striking down the budget-trimming plans of Gov. Chris Christie. As the press reported, the court ordered instead that an extra $500 million in state funds be allocated to some of the state’s poorest-performing school districts – the so-called Abbott districts, named after the three-decade-running New Jersey school finance litigation, Abbott v. Burke.

It’s too bad the editorial said nothing about the report five years ago in which one leading newspaper surveyed the wreckage done by the then-25-year-old litigation, which it called an “ambitious court-ordered social experiment.” (At that point, $35 billion in state tax money had already been lavished on the Abbott districts.) The paper’s reporting made a convincing case that the orders had squandered billions on mismanaged districts that were already far outspending most others in the state and region, as with Asbury Park, which was spending 70 percent more than the typical New Jersey district. Indeed, “the highest-spending districts were making the fewest gains” in student performance. It’s especially unfortunate because the newspaper that reported all this was the New York Times itself.

As I argue at greater length in my new book, school reform lawsuits like Abbott are much more than just vehicles for inefficiency and waste of tax dollars: they’re examples of an alternative method of governance, accomplished through what is sometimes called institutional reform litigation, and quite remote from the channels of lawmaking and appropriations familiar from civics books. Typically, successful litigation of this sort transfers control over an important issue like school funding from branches of government that are accountable to taxpayers and voters to a cluster of private litigators, expert witnesses, special masters, consultants, law professors, backers in liberal foundations, and so forth. The legal basis for the power grab is often flimsy in the extreme; in the Garden State, for example, the state constitution vaguely mandates that there be a “thorough and efficient” system of public education, and “educational equity” lawyers have prevailed on the courts to erect the whole thirty-year edifice of Abbott orders on a filling in of those mysterious blanks, a process that Gov. Christie has accurately described as “legislating from the bench”. (Our friend Hans Bader at CEI has more here and here.) In New Jersey, as in many other states and cities subject to these suits, governors and legislators may come and go, but the permanent government of court orders and negotiated consent decrees grinds on and on, conferring a curiously unaccountable power on the lawyers who manage and advance the litigation and their circle of allies.

It’s worth noting that since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the federal courts have stayed out of most school finance litigation, leaving it to state courts. For decades, outspoken voices in the law schools have been calling for Rodriguez to be overturned or at least end-run so as to confer an Abbott-like charter for social experimentation on the federal courts, which could then proceed to issue orders equalizing school finance, ordering “Robin Hood” aid to underperforming districts, and so forth. The most prominent advocate of this view in recent years has been a Berkeley law professor named Goodwin Liu – his views are summarized by admirers here and here – which may explain in part why Liu’s recent Ninth Circuit nomination raised such strong feelings.

Arizona Republic Corrects its Tax Credit Savings Estimate in Response to Cato Input

Last Wednesday, the Arizona Republic published a fiscal impact assessment of the state’s education tax credit programs for k-12 private school choice. While the story itself was a good faith effort, there were errors in both its data and assumptions. I wrote an op-ed intended for the Republic correcting those errors and e-mailed a copy to the story’s author, Ron Hansen, the same day his story was published.

While the paper’s editorial page expressed no interest in printing my submission, the Republic published a correction today based on the accurate spending and savings figures I provided. In a phone call, Hansen indicated that the correction was precipitated by my e-mail, though he opted not to mention that in his story, saying that he didn’t think the source of the correction was important.

On the one hand, Hansen and the Republic are to be commended for publishing a correction, and it should be noted that the bad data were provided to them by Arizona Director of School Finance, Yousef Awwad. On the other hand, their correction is incomplete – acknowledging only the bad data and not the mistaken assumption explained in my op-ed.

So while the Republic has now raised its savings estimate from their originally reported $3 million to a corrected $8.3 million, they have yet to explain that this figure could actually understate the total savings.

Still, their response is better than I expected.  Most newspapers, in my experience, do absolutely nothing when factual and reasoning errors in their education stories are brought to their attention, and in fact go on to repeat those same errors in subsequent stories.

And they wonder why two thirds of the public now doubt their credibility….