What’s harder to say is whether that’s a good thing, and whether students actually win when these lawsuits are successful.
Jim Ryan, a law professor at the University of Virginia, has argued that trying to prove the inadequacy of school funding through test results could provide perverse incentives for states to water down standards.
“One way to make education cost less is to lower the goals of education,” he said.
It also might prompt states to maintain funding disparities if testing results are comparable, or to “fund to the test,” rather than trying to meet broader educational goals. That could improve under the national Common Core academic standards that 45 states have adopted, but Ryan says there are other ways to demonstrate inadequate funding without relying on test scores.
Washington, one of only two states entering 2013 with a budget deficit, lost its own school-funding case a year ago. But the state Supreme Court didn’t mandate a required level of funding or a way to achieve it. That’s not unusual.
“The problem with these cases is that the courts don’t provide a clear way forward or a remedy,” said the NCSL’s Thatcher.
While declining to prescribe a specific remedy, the Washington Supreme Court is requiring that legislators provide an annual progress report for the next six years. Courts in New Hampshire and New Jersey also have remained actively involved in school-funding decisions years after lawsuits were resolved.
“These school finances cases never end,” said Michael Griffith, a school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States.
But courts typically don’t specify how states must raise additional money for schools, which could present problems if they mandate increases in tax-averse Colorado and Texas. Colorado’s constitution includes a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” that limits budget growth.
The different paths taken by Wyoming and Kansas, where courts ruled against the state, illustrate the funding challenge.
Through a series of decisions from 1995 to 2008 known as the Campbell rulings, the Wyoming Supreme Court played an active role by mandating minimum teacher salaries and laying out policies for equitably funding school facilities across the state. Those mandates have made the state among the most generous in the country for teacher salaries, which has drawn teaching candidates to Wyoming schools from across the country. School funding increases in Wyoming have been helped by the state’s abundant natural resources.
In Kansas, funding court-mandated increases has been more of a challenge. After a protracted battle between courts and the Kansas legislature, in 2006 state lawmakers increased funding overall and funneled a disproportionate amount of the new money to needy districts. Those changes prompted the Supreme Court to finally close the Montoy school-funding case.
But that was before the recession, which spurred Kansas to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from education. As a result, this year’s state education budget is 13 percent less, when adjusted for inflation, than in the 2007 school year, according to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities. The cuts triggered the current school- funding lawsuit.
It will be a while before schools in Texas, Colorado, Kansas and other states see any change in funding related to these lawsuits.