The Lost Art of Book Reviewing: Editors Defend School Money Trials

The academic book review is a lost art. In days gone by, one could count on fellow scholars to lay out the books’ argument, skewer it, then identify a laundry list of factual errors that demonstrate the author was careless or worse.

Nowadays, academic book reviews either stodgily summarize the book, then close with a few half-hearted compliments designed to ingratiate the reviewer with the author or, if not that, then take the opportunity as an occasion to denounce the author as a reactionary while writing a two-page, undocumented treatise on the same subject.

These thoughts came to mind upon reading the review of a book we edited entitled School Money Trials (Brookings, 2007) that recently appeared in the Journal of Law and Education. One looks in vain for an exploration of the arguments in any of the essays in the volume. That would require thought. It is much easier to say that the “writers are familiar to anyone acquainted with the conservative journal Education Next” and that “nearly all have worked with the Hoover Institute in other ways.”  (Fact check: To the best of our knowledge, only one contributor other than Paul Peterson has ever been on the Hoover payroll.)

Instead the reviewer, Julie Underwood, Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s education school, criticizes the following three propositions. The propositions she constructed are nowhere to be found in our book but she criticizes them nonetheless:

1. “Adequacy litigation was devised as a strategy to reform public education.”  Wrong, says Professor Underwood.  “The objective is to apply state education clauses as a mandate to better ensure that high-need programs possess the means to provide all students with adequate opportunity to achieve to at least the minimum standards.”


Comment:  Is that not reform?  Michael Rebell, the leading litigator in the adequacy movement, certainly thinks so.

2. “Courts are unable to delineate legal standards for adequacy.”  Wrong, says Professor Underwood.  “Educational experts and analysts can offer sufficient evidence to enable courts to make these decisions.”


Comment: Asserting that something can be done does not make it so. Several essays in the volume – including one by Mathew Springer and James Guthrie which the Supreme Court cited it its 2009 Flores decision – show just how difficult the task of defining an adequate level of education spending truly is. More generally, Flores has jeopardized the future of the adequacy law suit, a trend already in place at the state level (as a number of essayists in our volume point out).

3. “School spending is entirely within the province of the elected officials.” Wrong, says Professor Underwood.  “Under the core principles of judicial review set forth in Marbury v. Madison . . ., the courts hold the authority to determine whether the actions of government, including legislatures, are consistent within the constitutional framework. . . . History . . .clearly exposes the fallibility of elected officials.”


It is a long ways from Marbury to a legal justification for the claims advanced by adequacy plaintiffs.  Marbury discerned the power of judicial review in the federal constitution in 1803, but no court attempted to find a constitutional definition of educational adequacy until 1989.  If Marbury is to be understood as giving the courts the power to correct elected officials at any time and in every instance when they are wrong, then we no longer have a democracy, but a judicial theocracy.


Still, we appreciate Professor Underwood’s concluding remarks that “it is to their credit that Brookings Institution published this volume…these contributors are noted scholars and authors.” There are some good things about the new style of book reviewing after all.

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