Courting Failure: How School Finance Lawsuits Exploit Judges' Good Intentions and Harm Our Children
October 18, 2006
Edited by Eric A. Hanushek
Hoover Institution's Koret Task Force on Education
This volume tears away both the legal and logical rationales for America's ubiquitous education "adequacy" lawsuits. Sol Stern's chapter alone is worth the price of admission. He chronicles the thirteen-year saga of Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. New York, in which plaintiffs successfully argued that New York City schools are annually shortchanged $5.6 billion (not million) by the state (for operating expenses alone; capital outlays add another $9.2 billion). A general lesson from these cases is that judges have assumed the role of legislators--and aren't very good at it. The legal merits of these assessments are questionable to start with and whether they make for sound policy is even more doubtful. Editor Hanushek's chapter shows how contrived are the dollar figures that judges agree to mandate in these cases. Consultants produce ostensibly "scientific" analyses that entail little more than tallying up the cost of educators' dream schools. (And they tend to inflate the cost of everything.) Not that the money is then used to actually help needy kids, though. For example: after Kansas City, Missouri, recieved $2 billion to improve its schools, portions of the funds were spent on an arboretum, a wildlife refuge, and a model United Nations chamber. As Marguerite Roza and Paul Hill explain in their essay, school systems rarely allocate even their current funding for the students who need it most--the bulk of resources usually end up in well-off schools--so more money from adequacy lawsuits is unlikely to be spent any better. Other chapters put forth similar views and show that more money won't help most school systems. Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton provide useful case studies of some of America's most wasteful districts; Herbert Walberg argues that the existence of successful high-poverty, low-spending schools shows that many schools could succeed on their current budgets if they changed their educational tactics; and Paul Peterson details how private schools engage their students and parents, thus making use of a free resource in ways thrifty public schools ought to mimic. It's an interesting collection of chapters, devastating for both the law and logic behind "adequacy" lawsuits.