By now the list of a half-century of half-tried and discarded educational remedies seeking to honor the promise of Brown v. Board of Education fills volumes: attendance-zone redistricting, busing, magnet schools, compensatory education, bilingual education, ebonics, military schools, year-round schools, single-sex schools, Head Start and multiculturalism, plus scores of other curricular reforms. While gaps between the academic achievement of white and minority children were reduced in the first decades after the end of legal segregation, they were never eliminated. By almost any educational measure, the average black or Latino child continues to lag behind her white or Asian counterpart. In 1973, with its decision in San Antonio v. Rodriguez that public schooling was not a right guaranteed under the Constitution, the Supreme Court itself effectively gave up its cause.
That threw the issue back to the states, where it has remained ever since, but where, in an accumulation of crucial state Supreme Court decisions and associated legislative reforms, the drive for decent schools for poor and minority children has taken a new, unexpected–and perhaps encouraging–set of turns.
At the heart of those cases is the principle of adequacy, a legal idea, rooted in variously worded state constitutional provisions, that’s as promising as it is awkward. Many state constitutions require the state to maintain “thorough and efficient” schools or (as in New York) “free common schools wherein all the children of this state may be educated,” or (as in North Carolina) to establish the “right to the privilege of education.”
Most such provisions have been in state constitutions for generations. But in the past fifteen years, as state after state has adopted tougher academic standards, tests and accountability measures, those standards have become both the drivers and the gauge for new demands from parents, school districts, civil rights groups and others for better resources, especially in schools serving the neediest kids: If students are required to meet higher standards for promotion, or to pass exit exams to get a diploma, or if teachers or principals face sanctions if their schools don’t measure up, the state has a commensurate responsibility to provide the resources–in trained teachers, materials and facilities–to enable them to succeed. In this way, advocates of educational equity have attempted to turn the “standards” movement–which has been championed by conservatives–into a lever for progressive change.
The list of states where this is happening continues to grow: Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Wyoming, among others. The courts have ordered these states to establish systems that base school funding not on the customary political sausage machine that allocates money according to local wealth and the relative clout of competing legislative interest groups but on the closest possible determination of what it actually costs to educate each child. In some of them the judges have ordered even more specific remedies–preschool for at-risk children, for example, or wholesale curricular reforms.
In others, like California, major lawsuits are still pending. Former Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, hired high-priced corporate lawyers to fight a California suit first brought by the American Civil Liberties Union along with other civil rights groups. The state argued, among other things, that lousy schools weren’t its responsibility. After the state spent some $18 million on its lawyers, Davis’s Republican successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is now trying to negotiate a settlement.