NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 25, 2004

Deciding how much to spend on public education, the focus of most current school-finance cases, has been the exclusive province of state legislatures for as long as there have been public schools in this country, says attorney Al Lindseth.

Although education spending has almost tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars since the 1960s, courts in so-called funding-adequacy lawsuits are ordering one state after another to spend still more. For example:

  • New York's highest court recently ruled that $10,400 a year per student (about $250,000 per classroom) was not "adequate" to provide New York City children with the "free common schools" required under the state constitution.
  • Never mind that New York already spends more per pupil on K-12 education than any other state.
  • Victorious plaintiffs want another $9.5 billion a year, pushing spending to an astonishing $16,000 or more per student.

The New York decision, and others like it, ensures endless litigation. New Jersey has been in litigation for more than 30 years. Spending and taxes have soared as a result, with little improvement in student achievement, says Lindseth.

Such disturbing results are not surprising. In a state under court supervision, the legislature invariably focuses all of its energy on coming up with the money to satisfy the court order. Meanwhile, more promising reform measures are pushed to the back burner.

Legislatures are not perfect. But they have more expertise in education policy than most judges. Moreover, if the voters think their elected representatives are not appropriating enough money for education, they can throw them out in the next election. Once the courts take over, however, cases can last for decades in a fruitless effort to satisfy never-ending demands by plaintiffs and their supporters for more money, says Lindseth.

Source: Al Lindseth, "Suits won't fix school woes," USA Today, May 25, 2004.

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