Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Almost immediately after the trial court in Vergara v. State held that California's tenure and last-in-first-out statutes violated students right to education under the California Constitution, litigants filed a similar claim against New York, Davids v. New York. Last week, the trial court denied the state's motion to dismiss and permitted that case to move forward. Campbell Brown, who is helping lead the anti-tenure movement, hailed the decision as “a major victory for New Yorkers, especially for parents and students.” To the extent their claim is alive and they thought it would fail, yes, it is a significant victory. On the other hand, the judge's decision was unsurprising and probably correct.
The complaint in Davids was better written than Vergara. Its causal assertions were more clearly articulated and speak more directly to the prima facia claims that litigants must make in educational adequacy and equity claims. But stating a claim in a complaint and proving that claim with real and compelling evidence are two different things.
As I emphasize in this article, the notion that tenure might violate students' right to education is theoretically valid and, thus, courts should be careful to not peremptorily bar such claims because doing so might also have negative reciprocal effects on other important theories that seek to vindicate the constitutional right to education outside of school funding (in areas such as student discipline, student assignment, and segregation). Yet, courts must also refrain from the allure of the simplicity of the tenure claims. Unfortunately, the latter is exactly what the trial court in Vergara seems to have done.
School quality and equity cases are incredibly complex. Courts have required plaintiffs to demonstrate
- a constitutional duty
- a substantial and systematic deprivation of rights
- input causation: state responsibility for local deprivations
- output causation: whether the deprivation affect pertinent educational outcomes, and
- that the violations are susceptible to a remedy (or the remedy that plaintiffs request)
While the Davids plaintiffs generally make these allegations in the complaint, these allegations are really just assumptions. Demonstrating the truth of these assumptions is going to be extremely difficult, and will require far more nuanced analysis and evidence regarding multiple factors affecting educational and teaching quality, which the plaintiffs have yet to even acknowledge. Nonetheless, under liberal pleading rules, it is most likely plaintiffs' right to try to prove those assumptions. Although as I note in my article, newer more strict pleading rules in federal court might provides a basis to dismiss claims that assume or speculate about key issues. Of course, state education claims proceed in state court and most states have yet to move to the new federal approach.
Download the New York opinion here: Download 2015 March Motion to Dismiss Denied -A-043 - Davids-Wright
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Partners in some of Boston's largest law firms plan to file suit against Massachusetts, arguing that its cap on charter schools violates the state constitution's education clause. Their theory, at this point, is not clear. They say the suit will be brought on behalf of children who wanted to attend charter schools, but were not afforded a seat through the lottery procedures. Instead, the students enrolled in underperforming traditional public schools. “We don’t think they should be denied that opportunity, and we don’t think the Constitution allows them to be denied that opportunity,” Lee said. “We’d like to see the cap removed so that supply meets demand.” Their impetus appears to be a belief in studies claiming the academic superiority of charter schools.
The lawsuit is significant on several fronts beyond just the particular claims it might raise. First, it would appear to attempt to expand the scope of school finance precedent. This same type of strategy is at play in the constitutional challenges to tenure in Vergara v. California and similar litigation in New York. As analyzed here, the tenure theory can find some support in school finance precedent (although the plaintiffs' facts are lacking on causal questions), but how charter caps would fit into school finance precedent is far from obvious. To the contrary, the better constitutional arguments have been that charter schools violate the education clause (although courts have been reluctant to hold as much). Absent some revolutionary theory, the challenge to charter school caps is unlikely to go far. Nonetheless, it is an important example of how malleable school finance precedent could expand or, at least, how many different types of lawsuits might be brought in the attempt to expand it.
Second, this lawsuit also represents another instance of what David Sciarra has called grandstanding in education cases by certain big law firms. Education reformers' political theories are being transformed into constitutional claims by big law firms looking for pro bono work. It is unclear as to whether the firms are being duped by education reformers self-righteousness and their civil rights rhetoric or the firms are just looking to grab headlines through controversial litigation. Either way, the litigation is potential dangerous to long term education rights. The constitutional right to education is not political and never should be treated as such, but educational constitutional claims push separation of powers concerns to the brink in school quality and quality cases. Voyeurism into this area with these new claims looks like politics rather than vindication of constitutional rights. In this respect, litigation of this nature has the potential to undermine current rights .
Third is the question of litigation resources. With all the fundamental funding, quality, and racial inequalities in public education systems, the notion that a major law firm would skip past those issues to litigate on behalf of charter school interests is ironic to say the least.
Friday, March 13, 2015
With the Fair Housing Act currently before the Supreme Court in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, several education commentators and civil rights advocates have emphasized the connection between housing and schooling. Of course, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council has long made this connection, in contrast to others that focus on housing and education policy in silos.
Los Angeles Unified School district has recently been making a connection entirely lost on me until this week. The district brought a claim under the Fair Housing Act against three major banks, alleging racially biased mortgage lending. Why, some might wonder, would a school district bring a housing claim? Because, according to the district, the banks' lending practices led to foreclosures in the Los Angeles area, which directly lead to lower home values and real estate taxes--the life blood of education. In other words, biased home lending practices not only lead to racially segregated schools-the point most often made by advocates--but also inadequate financial resources for those segregated schools.
So far, the district is facing an uphill battle. In February, the district court dismissed the claims, reasoning that school funding levels are not directly tied to local property taxes. The district is now appealing. More here.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Back in the fall, David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, chided David Boies for lending his services to the movement to use school finance precedent to bring constitutional challenges to teacher tenure, when, at the same time, so many states are still failing to comply with their school funding obligations under that precedent. In other words, while tenure may be an issue, it pales in comparison to the fundamental underlying inequalities that students suffer in high poverty underfunded schools.
One of the cases that could have used Boies' assistance is Maisto v. State of New York, also known as the “Small Cities” case. That case was brought by parents and children in eight small city school districts across New York State. The Maisto districts all have low property wealth, higher than average local tax rates, and intense poverty, which causes high mobility rates and other challenges. These districts struggle lack the funding to provide reasonable class sizes, a full curriculum, and programs for high-needs students. The plaintiffs say their plight violates the state's constitutional obligation to provide a “sound basic education” for all children.
That case went to trial in December and is still ongoing. Gregory Little, a partner at White Case, stepped up, with no fanfare, to serve as lead co-counsel on a pro bono basis, spending hundreds of hours preparing for, and representing the 55,000 students in some of New York's highest poverty schools. He and his firm are partnering with the Education Law Center and William Reynolds of Bond Shoeneck in Albany to the bring the case. This partnership and its claims stand in sharp contrast to the constitutional challenge to tenure. Hopefully, it pays dividends for the clients.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Corey Robin's new essay offers thoughtful insight into the new irony of integration: our students are being taught integration and anti-racism values far more than prior generations ever were, but they are also experiencing far less integration in their schools than prior generations (post 1960 generations). Robin writes:
In her public school this year, my first-grade daughter learned that Daisy Bates helped integrate the Little Rock schools. She knows that Ella Baker, someone I’d never heard of till I went to college, was part of the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, her school has a combined black and Latino population of 15 percent, down from nearly 30 percent just seven years ago.
In school, white children are taught to be conscious of race and racism in a way I never was when I was as a kid in the 1970s. Yet they go to schools that are in some respects more segregated now than they were in the 1970s. In 1972, under Richard Nixon, 36 percent of black students in the South attended white-majority schools. By 2011, under Barack Obama, that number had plummeted to 23 percent. In every region of the country, a higher percentage of black students go to nearly all-minority schools than was the case in 1988. The same is true of Latino students in the South, the West and the Midwest.
Robin labels this the "white privilege con," whereby elites can have “conversations” about race while, at the same time, resegregating schools. This notion also permeates Osamudia James' new article, White Like Me: The Negative Impact of Diversity Rationale on White Identity Formation, 89 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 425 (2014).
All this reminds me of my recent visit to one of the more privileged public high schools in South Carolina. I was asked to come spend the better part of two hours with a small group of seniors and facilitate a discussion about our state's school funding case. The first hour was filled with the students' thoughtful ideas, solutions and comments about the inequities in our public schools. They also recognized how demographically different our poorest schools are. I was honestly extremely impressed with these students. At one point, I told them "you are offering a powerful counterpoint to almost everything Washington, D.C. is doing in education today." I think everyone in the room was enjoying the experience, but I finally asked the group, which did not have a minority student in it, whether they suffered any disadvantage in their own school, whether there was anything that would make their school environment better. I hid the ball for some time before pointedly asking: "doesn't it strike you as odd that we have sit here having a conversation about how to fix the education in schools about which none of us really know anything, about student of whom we know so little?"
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
In November, plaintiffs in eastern Pennsylvania, including four school districts, several parents, and the NAACP, filed a lawsuit alleging that the state's funding system is unconstitutional. They cite the state constitution's education clause, which states "“[t]he General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth." This clause, they say, establishes education as a fundamental right.
Although not plaintiffs--yet--superintendents in western Pennsylvania are stepping forward to challenge the system as well. Erie schools superintendent Jay Badams and Bill Nichols, superintendent of the Corry Area School District, recently testified at a hearing of the Basic Education Funding Commission, which is working to recommend a new formula for distributing basic education funding to districts. Badams says the current formula is irrational and unpredictable. Districts have no way of knowing from one year to the next how much money they will receive from the state. This makes planning and balancing school budgets extremely difficult.
To the extent this is true, Badams raises an important point I have not often seen in other states. In school finance litigation, the claim is generally that funds are insufficient or unequal. Recent shortfalls in Philadelphia suggest this is the case in Pennsylvania as well and that courts could step in on this basis alone. See here and here. But Badams offers an equally justifiable basis for intervention or reform. Without recounting the precedent from states like Kentucky and West Viriginia on what it means to offer a "thorough and efficient" education, it suffices to say that a funding system that is unpredictable is antithetical to a system of thorough and efficient schools, even if it might otherwise produce sufficient funds.
Friday, January 30, 2015
Yesterday, Rebecca Klein at Huffington Post published a U.S. map color coded by the average per pupil expenditure in each state. See here. In the heart of the Northeast (NY, NJ, MA, and VE), states spend $16,000 to $20,000 per pupil. Their immediate neighbors spend $12,000 to $14,000. Most of the North-South border states (extending out to Montana) spend $10,000 to $12,000 per pupil. In the Southeast, only one state-Louisiana-spends more than $10,000 per pupil. No obvious explanation for Louisiana jumps to mind. The lowest per pupil expenditures in the nation stretch from the Canada border in Idaho to the Mexico border in Arizona, at less than $8,000 per pupil.
A map of this sort is, unfortunately, too simplistic because it does not account for locality costs. Given the cost of living, the per pupil expenditures in the Northeast necessarily should be higher than those in the South, and those in certain parts of the West even lower. The relevant question is whether expenditures in those states are excessively low or high. With that factor in mind, the per pupil expenditures in California, Oregon, and Washington are the most striking. California falls in the same spending bracket as Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, and South Carolina. Go figure. Florida, likewise, falls in the same category as the rest of the Southeast, notwithstanding its dramatically different demographics and costs. For a better means tested analysis of funding, see the Education Law Center's funding fairness reports here.
Klein's second graphic, however, is very instructive. It shows the change in education spending from 2011 to 2012 (adjusted for inflation). Only seven states saw education funding rise. Only 4 saw significant increases. Fourteen states experienced modest decreases in funding (1 to 2% in real dollars), but the biggest group of 29 states saw education funding decrease from 2 to 9 percent.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
For those left wanting more after my quick post two weeks ago, Molly Hunter got her hands on the full opinion and offers the following summary:
On December 30, 2014, a three-judge District Court panel, in Gannon v. State, declared that the Kansas "approach to funding the K-12 school system" violates the Kansas Constitution because funding is "inadequate from any rational measure or perspective."
In March 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court, also in the Gannon case, reiterated the fact that the Kansas Constitution requires both equity and adequacy in school funding and set out clear definitions and tests to determine whether the state was complying with each requirement.
After the Supreme Court found the Kansas system was violating the equity standard in March, the Legislature adjusted state funding to remedy that finding.
On the adequacy requirement, also in its March decision, the Supreme Court remanded plaintiffs' claim of inadequacy to the panel of trial court judges. The Court instructed the District Court panel to determine whether the state's school funding system was providing sufficient funding, separate from the resolved issue of equitably distributing the funding, and whether that funding was sufficient using the "Rose factors," enumerated below.
Friday, January 9, 2015
Just before the end of the year, a three judge state district court panel held that Kansas public schools have been unconstitutionally underfunded. The court found insufficient "provision allowing localities to provide funding to equalize the gap between rich and poor districts . . . because it did not guarantee that the playing field would be leveled." This decision marks jut one more in a line of lower and supreme court opinions consistently finding that the Kansas legislature is failing to provide sufficient educational funding to meet the state constitution's requirement of "'suitable provision[s] for finance of the educational interests of the state.'" The panel refrained from indicating what specific amount of additional funding would be sufficient, citing separation of powers concerns. The panel did, however, suggest that somewhere between $4,654 - $4,980 per student would be constitutional. This suggestion also comes on top of 2013 ruling that an additional $440 million would be necessary statewide to meet constitutional requirements. The state previously agreed gradually increase per pupil funding to $4,492 and nearly got there in 2008, but since then, let per pupil funding dwindle back down to $3,852 per student. Recent tax cuts in the state, commitments to teachers' pension plans, and a projected $278 million shortfall in the state budget for 2015 will make reversing this trend a political challenge, but the constitution offers no quarter to such politics.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to read the opinion itself and have had to rely on media reports. I will update this post with a link to the opinion when it becomes available. I did, however, find an excellent time line of school finance battles in the state here.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
In an Op-Ed the Philadelphia Inquirer, Secretary Duncan weighed in on funding inequity in Pennsylvania and the nation in general. He wrote, "until some glaring funding injustices are fixed, in Philadelphia and in many school systems around the country, we will never live up to our nation's aspirational promises of justice." He cited heavy reliance on local property taxes to fund education as the source of our problems. The result, he said, is to make the quality of education dependent on geography, which disparately impacts the highest need, lowest-income students. "The key to a fair funding formula is quite simple: Target aid to students who need it most, and adjust current levels of state aid to the districts that are already well supported," he wrote.
This is welcome commentary to school funding advocates and scholars. It mimics what they have said for decades. Duncan penned a similarly welcome Op-Ed on school segregation a year ago. Unfortunately, although there are exceptions, Duncan's activity on these issues has larger been confined to op-eds. In the last year, the Department has issued helpful policy guidance on both issues, but that guidance only came after several years of charters, curriculum, and teacher reform. Those latter agendas might be useful, but none of them touch fundamental inequalities in regard to funding and race. In other words, op-eds and stated intentions to begin tacking discrimination pale in comparison to what the Secretary has done in other areas.
One might excuse the Secretary on race (although I do not) because of the tight rope the Supreme Court requires him to walk, but the failure to address school funding inequity begs the question of what the Department's purpose is. Title I of the ESEA--probably the most important piece of legislation the Department oversees--was designed as a remedy to resource inequity and segregation in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then it has drifted far from its mission. Scholars and advocates have documented its numerous flaws and proposed reasonable solutions. Those solutions, nor anything approximating them, have been found in any of the Secretary's recommendations for reauthorizing Title I or his competitive grant programs.
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Forbes magazine commissioned a study of the cost and benefits of the five big ideas for reforming education. The five big ideas will cost $6.2 trillion over 20 years and produce $225 trillion in additional gross domestic product. So what is the plan? Universal pre-k, teacher efficacy (attract, retain, and measure good teachers), school leadership (raise their salaries and give them the power to act like any other division head, including hiring and firing), blended learning (delivering rote information through technology and relying on teachers for value added instruction, which requires increasing computer and internet access), and common core curriculum.
Reduced to those headlines, it sounds simple. Reduced to the impressive financial spreadsheet, it sounds like a no brainer. To make sure, Forbes convened the top leaders from the four key constituent groups to ask whether the five big ideas are doable. The leaders were Arne Duncan, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Randi Weingarten, and D.C. public schools chancellor Kaya Henderson. They generally agree that the plan is doable.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
At the beginning of the charter school experiment, charter school advocates touted their ability to provide a superior education at a lower cost than traditional public schools. Now, we are seeing the charter lobby abandon that claim and turn to the courts to demand equal funding for charter schools. In Texas, charter school advocates recently lost their claim for equal funding. In New York, charter school advocates have sued for equal facilities funding. In a ruling that may have wide ramifications, last week an Arizona appellate court affirmed a lower court's ruling that the differential funding systems for public and charter schools do not violate Arizona's constitution.
In Craven v. Huppenthal, parents of children in Arizona charter schools sued the state, claiming that Arizona's school funding scheme was unconstitutional because it caused "gross disparities between charter public schools and other public schools." The lower court had granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and defendant-intervenors the Arizona School Boards Association and Creighton Elementary School District No. 14. The plaintiff-parents appealed.
Friday, November 14, 2014
On November 10, 2014, Pennsylvania students and parents, school districts, and two statewide associations filed a lawsuit charging that the state's school funding system deprives students of their right to a "thorough and efficient" education, as guaranteed by the state constitution.
The lawsuit comes in the wake of devastating cuts to teachers, support staff, programs, and essential resources in Philadelphia, Reading, York, and many other high-poverty rural and urban communities across the state.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
The South Carolina Supreme Court issued its decision in its long running school finance case today. The Court affirmed, with modifications, the trial court decision on behalf of the plaintiff school districts. The Court emphasized that the winners in the case were the students in the plaintiff school districts. It also emphasized that although neither the state nor the school districts in this case had carried out their duties in education, there are no losers in the case. This is not the time to cast blame, but a time to move forward with solutions. The opinion is here.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
New Lawsuit Alleges that Pennsylvania’s School Funding Arrangement Denies Students an Adequate Education
Yesterday, plaintiffs in Pennsylvania sued to have the state's funding formula declared unconstitutional, alleging that the General Assembly has failed its state constitutional obligation to provide a "thorough and efficient" system of public education. Read the complaint and watch interviews with the plaintiffs at Thorough and Efficient, a joint blog of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. Cribbed from the plaintiffs' press release:
The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia sued Monday on behalf of six school districts, parents, and two statewide associations against legislative leaders, state education officials, and the Governor for failing to uphold the General Assembly’s constitutional obligation to provide a "thorough and efficient" system of public ducation. According to the complaint, the Commonwealth has known for nearly a decade that Pennsylvania’s schools are badly underfunded.
Beginning in 2011, however, state officials abandoned [a working] funding formula, reduced funding to districts by more than $860 million, and passed legislation to prevent local communities from increasing local funding. The complaint alleges that these actions have had devastating consequences for students, school districts, and the future of the Commonwealth. Districts across the state are unable to provide students with the basic elements of a quality education, including sufficient numbers of qualified teachers and staff, appropriate class sizes, suitable facilities, and up-to-date text books and technology. ...
Plaintiffs allege that this underfunding and consequent underperformance has created a system of public education that is neither “thorough” nor “efficient,” nor “serves the needs of the Commonwealth.” In a second cause of action, the complaint alleges that the current way in which the Commonwealth funds public education denies students equal educational opportunities by creating gross funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.
Friday, October 31, 2014
Earlier this month, the Thomas Fordham Institute issued a map based funding explorer of the D.C. area schools. It is not altogether clear to me what the Institute's motivations or goals were. It traditionally produces reports, whereas this is no more than an interactive map. If you dig hard enough, you can get it to produce some tables for you. Regardless, it includes a more robust set of data points than the average tool of this sort and is easy to use, so one (me) cannot help but play with it.
The thing that jumped out at me over and over is that there is no clear rhyme or reason to the funding in the schools. At the district level, the average per pupil expenditures in Alexandria, Arlington, and D.C. Public Schools fell between $15,000 and $15,700. Rough parity, however, only makes sense if the need is roughly equal. The majority of students in DC and Alexandria schools are low income, whereas two-thirds of Arlington students are middle income. Thus, while parity between DC and Alexandria makes sense, Arlington is likely overfunding its schools, or Alexandria and DC underfunding theirs.
Falls Church and Fairfax County schools only further defy a sensible trend. Both spend less than the afforementioned districts and both have less low income students. That gives one hope of rationality, until one compares Falls Church and Fairfax to one another. Low-income students are almost non-existent in Falls Church. One out of four is low income in Fairfax, but Fairfax spends $2,000 less than Falls Church per pupil. One might assume Fairfix is just poorer, but no. Both Fairfax and Falls Church are both wealthy by any account, and the average income of adults in Fairfax is actually slightly higher than Falls Church.
Monday, October 20, 2014
In the past months, I have commented on school finance litigation in New York, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Mississippi; reports decrying the state of funding in Georgia and Wisconsin; and steps by the Alabama Department of Education to propose constitutional changes to education funding in the state. For those wondering whether suing the state is just what education advocates do or if there is some underlying fundamental problem, a new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities offers a simple explanation (although the report is about data, not school finance litigation). The title of the report, Most States Still Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession, belies the conclusion. The analysis found that:
- At least 30 states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-15 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent. (These figures, like all the comparisons in this paper, are in inflation-adjusted dollars and focus on the primary form of state aid to local schools.)
- Most states are providing more funding per student in the new school year than they did a year ago, but funding has generally not increased enough to make up for cuts in past years. For example, Alabama is increasing school funding by $16 per pupil this year. But that is far less than is needed to offset the state’s $1,144 per-pupil cut over the previous six years.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Alabama's Department of Education is considering changing the way funds are distributed to schools throughout the state. The current approach does not take need into consideration. Rather, all students and districts are treated the same, with each receiving an equal per pupil allotment. The new formula under consideration would distribute the money based on need, meaning "both poor districts and districts seeking to teach special classes of students, including English Language Learners, at-risk students and those in special education." Since "such a change would require a major political effort that would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment," the Department is proceeding cautiously and not pushing the formula change yet. These first steps, however, are generating significant discussion and research within the department.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
A report by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, 2014 Schoolhouse Squeeze, finds that cuts in state aid to public school have totaled $8.4 billion in recent years. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this has amounted to a 12% reduction between 2002-2015. Local funding, which provides 41% of school district revenues, has not made up the difference. In 89 districts that enroll 80% of the state’s students, school tax revenues have actual dipped an average of 20% in inflation-adjusted dollars, due to continued low property values resulting from the effects of the 2007 recession. Compounding the problem, the proportion of economically disadvantaged students in Georgia has increased 17% percent since 2002, and now represents 62% of the state’s student population. This growth means schools need more money, not less.
Friday, October 3, 2014
In 2012, in McCleary v. State, the Washington Supreme Court responded to the state's claim that federal education funds should be included in the analysis of whether the state was providing ample and dependable funds for education. The court balked:
[W]e find it difficult to characterize federal funding of certain education programs as a “regular and dependable tax source [ ],” id. at 523, 585 P.2d 71, for purposes of satisfying the State's obligation. Because federal dollars generally come with strings attached, the State may have little or no say on whether federal resources go toward the basic education program or some other program. Moreover, while federal funding is routed to school districts through the State's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), it is in a sense pass-through money for local school districts. Still, the State maintains that, to the extent federal funding defrays the cost of certain offerings in the basic education program, the State may rely on that funding in discharging its duty under article IX, section 1. This argument is tenable, though we emphasize that the State retains the ultimate responsibility for fully funding its basic education program.