Court-Ordered Funding Increases Are No Remedy for Ailing Schools

Published March 1, 2007

State courts have taken an increasingly active role in addressing the failures of America’s public schools–a role education reformers say is not best for students.

In December, New York Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse ordered the state legislature to increase education funding by $2 billion. According to a November 22, 2006 New York Times editorial, “the dollar figure was a disappointment to teachers who wanted more than twice that amount.”

The plaintiff, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), was likewise hoping for more money–closer to $6 billion. New York already spends almost $14,000 per student, making it the third-biggest spender nationwide. Education reformers cite that fact when explaining why court-mandated funding increases are the wrong approach to improving educational opportunities for K-12 students.

“One of the underlying problems with the New York legal battle is money may not be the answer to the achievement problems we face,” said Andrew LeFevre, executive director of REACH Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Pennsylvania that promotes school choice reforms.

No Returns

LeFevre is the author of a report published last November by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the nation’s largest nonpartisan group of state legislators, examining the effect of funding increases on student achievement. The 2006 Report Card on American Education concludes, “despite substantial increases in resources being spent on primary and secondary education over the past two decades–per-pupil expenditures have increased by 77.4 percent (after adjusting for inflation)–student performance has improved only slightly.”

CFE says Americans need to shell out billions more than the nearly $500 billion currently spent, to reduce class sizes and raise teacher salaries. But classrooms nationwide have been shrinking over the past two decades. On average, today’s classes are close to 11 percent smaller than they were in 1983, the year the Reagan administration issued its education report A Nation at Risk, calling for serious education reform.

Since then, every state has increased its education spending, with Georgia, Maine, and South Carolina topping the charts for largest increases. According to the 2006 Report Card‘s state academic achievement rankings, these three states were not in the top 10 for test scores.

Only Maine ranked in the top 20, at 18, while South Carolina and Georgia ranked 40 and 45, respectively. Of the 10 states that increased their spending the most, only two were ranked in the top 10 in academic achievement, and three ranked among the worst 10.

The December report from the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, Tough Choices or Tough Times, also casts doubt on the usefulness of funding increases. The report calls for a major overhaul of the way public schools are managed and funded. It warns, “There is not enough money available at any level of our intergovernmental system to fix th[e] problem by spending more on the system we have. We can get where we must go only by changing the system itself.”

Bypassing Lawmakers

The CFE lawsuit is the latest in a stream of adequacy suits–appeals for courts to step in to remedy schools’ inadequate performance.

In “Courtroom Alchemy,” a feature article in the winter 2007 issue of Education Next, authors James Guthrie and Matthew Springer write, “plaintiffs have filed more than 125 court cases questioning the constitutionality of school district and school spending levels. In 2005 alone, high court decisions were handed down in eight states.”

Opponents of court-ordered funding increases also point out that tackling student achievement deficiencies is a public policy matter best reserved for state legislatures’ deliberation.

In another article in the Winter 2007 issue of Education Next, Josh Dunn and Martha Derthick explain why this kind of judicial intervention ought to be left to legislative bodies: “Adequacy lawsuits have proved a serious threat to the right of citizens to have their taxes determined by elected officials who are in a position to weigh competing claims for public support and to judge the relative efficacy of spending for particular purposes.”

Free Interpretation, Fuzzy Math

In addition to those concerns, judicial decisions depend too heavily on interpretation of vague and often brief state constitutional provisions, Dunn and Merthick note, citing DeGrasse’s decision.

According to the authors, the judge “without apology explained that in education litigation courts ‘are called on to give content to Education Clauses that are composed of terse generalities,’ which in New York’s case is ‘The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.’ From that clause, DeGrasse determined that the New York City schools were unconstitutional in everything from library expenditures to arts courses.”

Adequacy lawsuits not only ask judges to take license with state constitutions, but once inadequacy is thought to be established, call on the court to determine how much money is necessary to achieve adequacy. For this, spending advocates have produced “costing out” studies that Guthrie and Springer say may represent more guesswork than reliable figures. The two most common approaches for conducting such studies often produce outcomes representing several billion dollars’ worth of differences in recommended spending increases.

Matt Warner ([email protected]) is executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Education Task Force.

For more information …

“A Nation at Risk,” National Commission on Excellence in Education, April 1983,

The 2006 Report Card on American Education,” written by Andrew T. LeFevre and published in November 2006 by the American Legislative Exchange Council, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #20596.

The following documents are also available through PolicyBot™:

Tough Choices or Tough Times (summary), document #20597

“Courtroom Alchemy,” James W. Guthrie and Matthew G. Springer, Education Next, Winter 2007, document #20598

“Judging Money,” Josh Dunn and Martha Derthick, Education Next, Winter 2007, document #20599