Thursday, March 14, 2019

Maryland and New Hampshire Plaintiffs File School Funding Lawsuits within One Week of Each Other, What Gives?

For the second time in a week, plaintiffs have filed major school funding lawsuits.  A few days ago, plaintiffs in Baltimore filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that the state was way out of compliance with the terms of its previously agreed upon settlement and funding formula.  Data indicates Baltimore schools are underfunded by about $300 million.  Yesterday, plaintiffs in New Hampshire filed their own, claiming that the state's school funding formula grossly miscalculates the cost of providing an adequate education.  The formula entirely excludes some costs and underestimates several core ones like teacher salaries and facilities.

These cases are also of particular interest not just because of their timing, but because they come in states with relatively high funding levels. Both rank around 11th or 12th in terms of their funding levels.  New Hampshire also has relatively few low-income students, meaning that education needs and costs would presumably be lower than the average state.  None of this is to suggest the claims lack merit.  Baltimore city schools educate large percentages of low income students.  Even if Maryland's statewide funding levels look impressive, they are largely irrelevant to Baltimore.  And a school funding formula that is regressive in terms of district poverty levels will create huge disadvantages in Baltimore.  Bruce Baker estimates that Maryland's highest poverty school districts require about $22,000 per pupil to achieve average academic outcomes, but only have about $15,000.  Similar funding appears more than sufficient in the rest of the state's school districts.  In other words, average funding in Maryland masks a huge problem in Baltimore.

New Hampshire is a little harder to sort out.  Funding is down there since the recession, but not by a huge margin.  Its funding practices are regressive, but not enormously so.  And with relatively high overall funding levels, that regressivity is not damning. Baker estimates that even its highest poverty districts have the resources to achieve average outcomes.  The key here, however, is "average."  As Baker is careful to point out, average isn't adequate.  And plaintiffs in New Hampshire are complaining about adequacy--what their constitution requires.

One interesting way to read the New Hampshire case, and to some extent Maryland, is as a maturation of school funding litigation and precedent.  The earliest cases were about the most egregious inequalities and deprivations.  As I have noted elsewhere, under those facts, plaintiffs claims appear nearly self-evident.  A state's funding system would be unconstitutional under any standard--high quality education, adequate education, minimally adequate education or just basic skills.  New Hampshire plaintiffs, however, press a more nuanced claim that asks the courts to rule in their favor because the state is failing to fully comply with its constitutional obligation, even if that failure is not egregious or catastrophic.

Both cases will be interesting to watch.

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