It's been more than a decade since state courts began insisting that legislatures rejigger school finance systems in order to help out districts in poor areas. The original "equity" suits that triggered court mandates have been succeeded in much of the country by "adequacy" suits, in which local school districts or education advocates sue the state on the grounds that not enough is being spent to provide a minimally acceptable level of education.
If there's a national capital of school finance turmoil right now, it may be Kansas. The state lost an adequacy suit two years ago, and the state Supreme Court ordered the legislature to spend substantially more money on the poorer districts. Legislators this spring approved $140 million to accomplish that purpose, but just about everyone in Topeka realized that the court wouldn't consider that enough, and it didn't. So the legislature held a special session this summer and came up with another $148 million. That's still not enough, according to the court. The judges seem inclined to demand another half-billion next year, although they're satisfied for now.
There's an argument to be made that courts have no business telling policy makers how much is enough. Courts, after all, don't normally concern themselves with allocating funds, and they certainly don't have to weigh the merits of spending an extra $300 million on schools against the desire to build more roads, for instance, or keep from raising tax rates. Some Kansas legislators grew so incensed during the sessions this year that they talked about rewriting parts of the state constitution to curb judicial power. In the end, they settled for a few provisions that will make it more difficult for districts to sue in the future.
In some ways, despite the constant stress the judiciary has placed on the state's political system, Kansas lawmakers are lucky. At least the court there has been relatively clear about what it wants. Other states have struggled over and over again to come up with new money or revenue streams only to have judges impose vague new guidelines. Texas legislators have wrestled unsuccessfully all this year with the problem of trying to satisfy a district judge who has found state education funding both inequitable and inadequate, but has never said precisely what would be acceptable. "It's like mind-reading," says John Augenblick, a Denver-based education consultant.
The underlying problem is that no one knows a good way to measure education by any means other than dollars. Standardized testing is supposed to provide another approach, but the reality is that test scores will only provide more ammunition to unhappy educators and activists who think they need more money to do a good job.