In a recent school finance decision forced by plaintiff claims that public schools were inadequately and inequitably funded, a state of Washington judge, John Ehrlick, cut a Gordian knot that had for years tied up state legislatures from New York to Ohio and back to New Jersey. Nearly forty states have been subjected to these equity and adequacy lawsuits, and a legal tangle has ensued whenever a legislature has simply refused to change its funding policies, no matter what the judge says.
So often has this happened that the legal decisions have generally not produced any higher level of expenditure than what would have occurred in any case. That is documented in a book Martin West and I edited called School Money Trials. There it is reported that legislatures sometimes ignored the courts, and even when they did give districts extra cash, the districts simply cut their own property tax.
Silently taking note of this tangle, twisted still further since the publication of our edited collection by contemporary state fiscal crises, Judge Erlick declared that the Washington state legislature had acted contrary to the constitution by not adequately funding the state’s schools, but then left it up to the legislature to decide what to do about that fact. Unlike previous judges who made similar rulings, he proposed no financial remedy but simply turned the job back to the legislature. Some might say this is tantamount to finding the burglar guilty but then letting him go scot-free. But the judge’s decision is not a bad solution when the burglar—in this case the legislature—is not easily jailed.
In a new study published by Education Next, “School-Finance Reform in Red and Blue,” Christopher Berry and Charles Wysong add a partisan flavor to the adequacy lawsuit story. They find that, relative to what would have happened in any case, expenditures forced by court orders depend on which political party is in power. If Republicans control both the legislature and the gubernatorial chair, they increase aid to the poorest districts but do not add to overall state spending. If Democrats control both the legislative and executive branch, however, districts—both rich and poor–get more state money. When the branches of state government are controlled by different parties, the outcome falls somewhere between these two extremes.
Evidently, parties are eager to do the court’s bidding when they are inclined to do just that in any case. When told they must spend more money, Democrats, seldom the party to shrink from such a task, thank the court for throwing them into a delectable briar patch. Republicans, resistant to raising the taxes necessary to fund higher expenditures statewide, concentrate any new expenditures on the poorest districts. Republican state legislative decisions are the least costly—but the most egalitarian.
NB: One of the authors of the study, Christopher Berry, talks with Education Next about how politics influences the way states react to school finance lawsuits in a video posted here.