It’s been more than thirty years since Jack Coons and Steve Sugarman, two University of California law professors, devised the legal theory for challenging the unequal financing schemes that appeared to lock so many poor and minority children into inferior schools. In the case that led to the landmark 1970s Serrano v. Priest decisions in California, and in similar cases in Michigan, New Jersey, Texas and a dozen other states, the courts have ruled that when states promise free public schooling to all children, they also have a responsibility to make certain that funding for those schools is relatively equal for each child, regardless of the local property-tax base and other economic circumstances of the communities where those children live.
At the time, the equity theory seemed as promising as it was novel. If a town was too poor to fund schools on a par with more affluent communities, it was up to the state to equalize the funding, which in turn was supposed to close the gap in achievement. Of course, it rarely did that. What those decisions did do, however, was to transform what had been, for the most part, a decentralized, property-tax-based school structure into a statewide apparatus. That led in turn to the increased control that the states now exercise over curriculums, standards and testing.
But in the past few years, courts–in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Wyoming–have embraced a far more sweeping, radical and ultimately unpredictable idea: that regardless of equity, the state is responsible for providing schooling that is adequate to twenty-first-century educational demands, even if that means providing extra resources to children at risk of failing. Not surprisingly, there are no certain measures of adequacy–they can be based on resources, on student outcomes or on some combination of the two–but in general, as the Wisconsin Supreme Court recently defined it, it means schooling “that will equip students for their roles as citizens and enable them to succeed economically and personally.”
Because the states have recently begun to define school standards with increasing precision–in reading and math, in science, in what students must do to be promoted or graduate, in articulating needs for well-trained people in a high-tech economy–the courts have ready measures of adequacy at their disposal. As it stands, students cannot be denied diplomas or held back on the basis of tests covering material that they haven’t had an opportunity to learn, but the new adequacy cases go far beyond curricular issues in requiring that schools provide the whole range of resources necessary to give every student the chance to succeed.
The most widely reported of the recent adequacy decisions came in New York in January, where State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse, a trial judge, ruled that the state’s system of school finance deprived children in New York City–the vast majority of them black and Hispanic–of the “sound, basic education” guaranteed by the state Constitution (and in similar or identical words, by many other state constitutions).
In a voluminous opinion following a lengthy trial, DeGrasse, noting that some 40 percent of New York City’s children come from welfare homes and that more than 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for low- or reduced-price lunches, listed grievances common to many US inner-city schools–dilapidated, overcrowded and sometimes unsafe buildings; a high proportion of undertrained and incompetent teachers; lack of books, laboratories and other science facilities and equipment; low graduation rates–and ordered the state to revise its fiscal formulas and devise and implement other remedies.