November/December 2014

Susan Farrell worked in school finance in Illinois between 1992 and 2013, including 13 years at the Special Education District of McHenry County. She recently received her doctorate in education in educational administration from Northern Illinois University. Farrell resides in Stoke-on-Trent, England.

In 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the Old Deluder Satan Act. The law required towns of 50 householders to employ a teacher to instruct reading and writing. The teacher’s wages were to be paid by parents or by the general population. In this simple attempt to foil Satan and ensure that children were able to read the Bible, the stage was set for educational finance in the United States.

The practice of funding schools locally has become commonly accepted, and the philosophy is much the same as it was in 1647: schools reflect community values and educate children to become contributing members of society. Because a successful student will benefit the whole community, the whole community should fund education. Today, however, American communities are larger, more diverse and have more contact with other communities. Along with diversity comes conflict, most apparent when resources are scarce. Nowhere do the competing visions and values of education become clearer than in the arena of school finance.

School finance is mired in a paradox of values encompassing personal beliefs, family values, community wealth, taxation, economics, and state and federal statutes. These competing values leave taxpayers both dissatisfied and disgruntled, inevitably leading to court challenges of financing systems.

The Illinois State Board of Education’s 2013 ILEARN database reported that 66 percent of local school district revenues are raised through local taxation, 26 percent contributed by the state and the 8 percent from federal funding. Because they were not formed based on number of households or square mileage; districts vary in property size and wealth. The continued reliance on local property wealth has resulted in long-term disparity in districts. ISBE reported that the 2013 Illinois per-pupil operating expenditures had a range of $22,143 – from a low of $6,353 to the high of $28,497.

Illinois is not alone. Throughout the United States, wealth disparity between school districts has led to state funding equity challenges in the court systems, based on equal protection clauses of state constitutions or the federal constitution. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that no person can be denied equal protection under the law. To understand how this clause affects public education, one must view the amendment in historical context.

The roots of funding equity challenges can be traced to racial educational segregation. In 1849, in the Massachusetts case Roberts v. City of Boston, the state court’s ruling supported local officials’ right to control of local schools, and that segregated schools did not violate students’ rights. This ruling established legal approbation for racial educational segregation. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896, upheld segregation of the races, but also introduced the concept of “separate but equal.” This concept stated that facilities could remain segregated, but those facilities must be equal.

In 1899, in Cummings v. Richmond County Board of Education, the first “separate but equal” school funding case was heard. Springing from Plessy, a case was filed in Georgia regarding equal educational facilities after the school board closed the minority high school in 1897. The suit claimed that a school tax levy was illegal because it supported a white-only secondary school. The school board argued lack of resources, stating it was preferable to close a minority high school serving 60 students and apply the funding to primary schools serving 200 students. The original decision was not an injunction on the tax levy, but on the school board from using funding at the secondary level. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s injunction against the board of education. The case was taken to the U.S Supreme Court, which declined jurisdiction, maintaining that education, based on state taxes, was therefore a state matter. The opinion stated:

We may add that while all admit that the benefits and burdens of public taxation must be shared by citizens without discrimination against any class on account of their race, the education of the people in schools maintained by state taxation is a matter belonging to the respective States, and any interference on the part of Federal authority with the management of such schools cannot be justified except in the case of a clear and unmistakable disregard of rights secured by the supreme law of the land.

Over 50 years later, in 1954, the Court reversed the Plessy decision. In Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, the Court stated, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Chief Justice Earl Warren stated in his opinion:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

Brown v. The Board of Education declared racial educational segregation unconstitutional and enlarged the legal scope of challenges from equal facilities to financial equality.

A landmark California case, Serrano v. Priest in 1971, set the precedent that education could be considered a fundamental right, and that wealth was a suspect class. The state court found that the funding system for California discriminated against the poor and violated the state’s equal protection clause. The decision inspired litigation in almost every state, and in 1973, the fundamental right concept went to the U.S. Supreme Court from Texas.

In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the plaintiff claimed the Texas school finance system favored wealthy communities and violated the equal protection clause. In this case, the Court decided that the Texas financing system did not interfere with any fundamental right or liberty under the U.S. Constitution. The Court again noted that education is a state service and should be addressed at a state level. The decision in this case effectively closed education equity challenges at the federal level and moved school financing challenges to the state courts.

In the 1980s, the standard-based reform movement turned the focus to student outcomes. The development of student academic standards opened up a new era in school funding challenges. Challenges would center on educational clauses of state constitutions and focus on obtaining equal and adequate opportunity for students, rather than equal funding. Two basic strengths to this argument make it acceptable to communities: sympathy and quantifiable measurements. The adequacy argument’s primary strength is sympathy for children, because it advocates that all students should receive an adequate education. It allows the court to focus on the child rather than the funding. The second strength is that student outcomes are quantifiable and measurable to specific standards of learning. Because the federal constitution does not have an education clause, these challenges must take place at the state level.

This article is the first of a two-part series. In the next issue of the Journal, the author will examine education funding challenges in the Illinois courts.


Resource citations

Education in the United States: A Documentary History 394 (Sol Cohen ed., 1974).
Roberts v. City of Boston, 59 Mass. 198 (1849), 210
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), 549
Cummings v. Richmond County Board of Education, 175 U.S. 528 (1899)
Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
Serrano v. Priest, 487 P.2d 1241 (Cal. 1971), 589
San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973), 28-29