The Never-Ending School Finance Wars
Just like school years come and go and spring fades into summer, controversy over how we fund our schools has been a part of our political landscape for what seems like eternity. Most recently, the Kansas Supreme Court has threatened to keep the state’s schools closed if the legislature does not change the way it funds schools to provide more money for low-income districts.
Kansas is not alone. At the end of its session this year, the Texas Supreme Court came down with a decision on the constitutionality of its school finance system. Not long ago, the Missouri Supreme Court was asked the same question, and given the changes to the school funding formula this legislative session, it is entirely possible that the state might be taken to court again.
Years of lawsuits and millions of dollars in legal fees have been devoted to 15 words in Article Six of the Kansas constitution “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” In Texas, it’s a few more, but conveys the same message. In Missouri, our Constitution at least gives some benchmark, saying that we can spend no less than 25% of state revenue on our public schools, but even that has been challenged over the years.
These cases have well-compensated lawyers, expert witnesses, and consultants trying to force courts to read minute detail into constitutional language. Complicated studies are conducted to place an exact dollar amount on what constitutes “suitable provision,” so that a penny less is seen as violating the constitution.
This is not how we should determine what to spend on our schools, for two reasons.
First, no one really knows exactly how much we should be spending on education. Costing out the precise dollar value of a quality education is beyond the knowledge base of social science today. We simply do not know that spending X amount of money will yield Y level of achievement. What’s more, we have a belief that low-income students, students with special needs, and students who have to learn the English language cost more to educate—but how much more? We simply don’t know.
Second, for all of its faults, the legislature is better qualified to make funding decisions than the courts are. Courts are not in a good position to weigh the complicated tradeoffs that legislatures must make when they appropriate state tax dollars. We don’t live in a world of unlimited resources. As a result, legislators have to weigh the needs of schools against other needs, like roads, healthcare, and everything else that the state supports. Courts are rarely, if ever, asked to determine how their decisions might affect these other priorities. And depending on whether judges are appointed or elected, they may be harder to hold accountable than legislators, who must run for re-election.
Not everyone is going to agree with the decisions that the legislature makes, and their complaints will be justified in some cases. But that is why we have elections. Calling on the courts should be an absolute last resort, reserved for the most egregious cases. In most instances, the only thing that will be accomplished by including the courts will be to make lawyers and consultants richer, not improve educational outcomes for children.