Journal of Law & Education, Vol. 36, No. 4 (October 2007), pp. 481-496


There are always winners and losers in school funding reforms, which often leads to protracted litigation in these cases. School funding reforms directly affect tax burdens, the distribution of resources, and the allocation of educational opportunities. Competition over limited resources is inevitable. Although win-win scenarios are ideal, they are not likely in school funding disputes. Limited resources generally make school funding reforms a zero-sum game, with significant systemic changes redefining who wins and loses under the new system.

After the initial exuberance that occurs with a court victory, reform advocates must still face the challenge of translating their court victory into authentic and lasting improvements in school funding. Ultimately, this implementation means obtaining legislative support for more money for the schools represented by funding reformers. In times of large budget surpluses it may be possible to increase funding for reform advocates' schools without generating any discernible pain for others. Budget surpluses never last forever, however, and sooner or later reform advocates will encounter the state's firm fiscal and political realities. Eventually more money for funding reformers' schools will mean less money for other schools, higher taxes, or both. Of course, these options will be politically unpopular. For example, in response to a judicial order for public school funding reform, a chairman of a New York State Senate Education Committee replied: “We are not the federal government ... we can't go downstairs to the basement of the Capitol and print money .... The court has set the bar so high as to make it virtually impossible in the real political world in which we operate.” On the road from a court victory to authentic and lasting reforms there are two hard truths: 1) No matter how noble the purpose, money cannot be allocated for that purpose if there is no money available; and 2) Authentic and lasting reform cannot be achieved without adequate and sustained political support for the reform.

Although it is not the panacea that some school reformers hoped it would be, judicial decisions in school funding disputes can be helpful to reform advocates. Authentic and lasting changes in school funding require adequate fiscal resources, effective school funding legislation, and sufficient long-term political will to enact and sustain positive changes in school funding systems. Judicial involvement may serve as a catalyst for change, but reform advocacy must extend more broadly to encompass the political realm. The only enduring resolution to school funding problems lies in persuading the electorate that making a quality education available to every child is clearly in everyone's long-term self-interests. Advocates must persuade the electorate and lawmakers that educational inequities should be eliminated not only because they are unconstitutional, but because they are unwise public policy.

Judicial opinions may contribute to this process by calling public attention to the problems caused by inadequate funding of public education. The hearts and minds of the public and their political representatives, however, are unlikely to be won through an unrealistic and unpopular mandate from an overreaching court. Court orders resulting in higher taxes and unpopular school resource shifts in the state may even inflame public opinion against future school funding reform efforts, and increase public support for alternatives to public schools. In the end, judicial extremism may simply lead to legislative extremism to oppose the court's actions.

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