Education

Will Education Cuts Lead to More Lawsuits?

States that are cutting their K-12 budgets by billions of dollars can expect more lawsuits, but they may not have an immediate impact.
by | August 2011

In recent years, nearly every state has been hit with an “adequacy” lawsuit complaining that school funding was not sufficient to ensure a good education. Now that states are cutting their K-12 budgets by billions of dollars, they can expect to be hit with a lot more.

It’s already happened in New Jersey. In May, the state Supreme Court ordered the restoration of $500 million in funding for schools. New Jersey may be a special case -- the state had asked for relief from the longstanding lawsuit based on a new funding formula it had developed and, ultimately, failed to fund -- but it won’t be unique.

“When the Legislature rolls back funding substantially below what the court ordered by way of adequate funding in 2006, that unquestionably helps our case,” says Alan Rupe, attorney in a lawsuit against the state of Kansas.

Mike Griffith, a finance analyst with the Education Commission of the States, says he does expect to see an uptick in the number of filings, but doubts they’ll have much immediate impact. Not many courts will step in quickly, he predicts. “These things take at least five years, and the norm is seven to 10,” Griffith says.

To the extent they’re challenged on education cuts, states are likely to embrace what might be called the blood-from-a-turnip defense. Courts have generally been leery of ordering states to spend specific dollar amounts on schools. They may be more sympathetic than usual to arguments from states that they simply can’t afford to spend much more.

“All of these courts are political in nature,” says Eric Hanushek, an education finance analyst at Stanford. “They can’t just say, ‘We’re not going to pay attention to the fact that there’s this deep recession and there’s not revenue there.’”

Still, most observers predict that going to court will become an even more common recourse for school districts, civil rights groups and parents concerned about education spending levels. Personal injury lawyers sometimes talk about a “good injury” that helps clients win a case. Billion-dollar spending cuts are a good injury in this regard.

“You’ll see more lawsuits filed as funding levels are cut,” says Josh Dunn, a political scientist at the University of Colorado. “The attorneys interested in this sort of litigation are working on it fairly consistently, but this does give them an opportunity.”

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