Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Bigger Pies, Better Resource Allocation, or Information? Three Futures for Education Rights Litigation By Chris Elmendorf & Darien Shanske
Education is special in the eyes of the law. State constitutions rarely require the government to spend money on anything, let alone to spend it well. Yet virtually every state constitution provides for a system of free public schools, and many courts have treated state governments as having a legally enforceable duty of care with respect to education.
But what exactly does this duty of care entail? One might expect this question to be reasonably well settled, as public-interest lawyers have been litigating education rights cases since the early 1970s. It is not. Two competing visions of the duty of care are playing out today in cases across the country. One holds that the state’s primary responsibility is to provide an ample fiscal “pie” for local school districts. Funding arrangements must ensure that all districts can afford to pay for decent facilities and programs. This vision motivates many of the claims that were filed in response to school-funding cutbacks during the Great Recession. The other vision holds that the state’s primary duty is to allocate efficiently whatever funds it appropriates for education. Informed by conservative critiques of public-sector bloat and interest-group politics, this vision calls on courts to redirect wasteful spending and unfetter local school administrators, but without touching the “political” question of how much to spend. The better-allocation vision undergirds a recent and exhaustively detailed trial court ruling in Connecticut, as well as challenges to teacher-tenure and seniority rules now pending in Minnesota, New York, and New Jersey.
Conservative opponents of bigger-pie litigation have long argued that the empirical evidence of the effect of school spending on student outcomes is too shaky to warrant judicial intervention. Liberal critics of the new teacher-tenure lawsuits have started making precisely analogous arguments in better-allocation cases, with no apparent sense of irony. But no one has asked whether states themselves might bear constitutional responsibility for the lack of reliable information about likely effects of plaintiff-sought reforms.
In a forthcoming law review article, we pose and answer this question, developing a new, information-centric vision for education rights litigation. Under our account, the states’ primary responsibility today is to structure their educational systems so that researchers and policymakers can figure out which interventions or reforms would actually improve the constitutional performance of the school system. Courts uniformly agree that the constitutional function of public schools is to prepare children for a lifetime of productive participation in economic, political, and civic life. But researchers know very little about the effects of educational reforms on adult outcomes—and the states bear much of the blame for this.
As our article explains, states exercise enormous control over the production of knowledge about education, especially about long-run effects. This control is wielded through the architecture of administrative data systems; through the rules for assigning students, programs, and funding to schools; through the manner in which educational reforms are implemented; and through the terms on which the state provides access to administrative data.
States already possess constitutionally urgent information about the outcomes that schoolchildren realize as adults. This information is scattered across tax, voting, health, welfare, and criminal justice agencies. But, for the most part, state record-keeping systems have not been designed to enable linkage of educational and other records—and record-linkage is necessary to understand the long-run impact of educational reforms. Some states have actually banned the use of critical administrative datasets for research purposes. Likewise, in rolling out educational reforms, states rarely consider whether the rollout will enable credible tests of the reform’s effects. (Typically this requires well-defined “treatment” and “control” groups, which are similar to one another on average.)
Judicial recognition of a state duty of care with respect to the production of knowledge about education wouldn’t turn children into lab rats. States would still have to protect student records from privacy-compromising disclosures, and state officials, not researchers, would continue to set priorities.
But states would no longer be free to ignore how their own decisions affect what can be learned about the long-run effects of the state’s educational policies and programs. At a minimum, states would have to issue and periodically update a plan that identifies barriers to learning about how the state’s educational objectives can be achieved, and that explains what the state intends to do about it. Arbitrary barriers, such as flat prohibitions on the linkage of educational and other administrative records, would be vulnerable to constitutional attack. And in “bigger pie” and “better allocation” litigation, courts would consider not only whether the plaintiffs’ evidence is strong enough to order statewide reforms, but also whether the difficulty of learning about the effects of spending levels or allocative constraints without the cooperation of the state warrants a test of the plaintiff-sought remedy, which would be implemented temporarily in a randomly selected subset of schools or school districts.
Our informational gloss on the state’s duty of care with respect to education offers a way forward in the many states whose courts have, on separation-of-powers grounds, declined wade into the Stygian swamp of funding and allocative disputes. Courts can address barriers to the production of knowledge about education without touching large-scale questions about how much to spend on education and how to spend it. Whatever else the states may owe to disadvantaged children, at least the states must make it possible to learn whether their efforts to better educate those children are doing any good.