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65 Years After Brown v. Board of Education, More Suits Over Education Equity

Sixty-five years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision that found racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, families and education advocates are still suing to compel states to uphold their education funding obligations. But policymakers could avoid court disputes altogether by ensuring the proper level and distribution of money in their K-12 budgets, as Kansas and New Mexico took steps to do this year.

Fourteen states — Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee — face lawsuits on school funding adequacy or equity, according to the Center for Education Equity.

Some of them face suits for insufficient funding. Adequately funding schools helps increase high school completion, close achievement gaps, and make the future workforce more productive by boosting student outcomes, studies show. Others are facing suits over inequitable funding, particularly to districts with many poor children. Equity often requires providing more resources to high-poverty schools and schools with high shares of children of color. Nationally, school districts serving the most Black, Latinx, and Native American students receive significantly less state and local funding than districts serving the fewest.

States that adequately and equitably fund schools can better implement reforms — like expanding early learning, reducing class sizes, and improving teacher quality — that improve educational outcomes, especially for children of color and those in economically struggling communities.

In contrast, school districts that cut funding risk lower high school graduation rates and lower test scores. For every 10 percent of spending that school districts cut in the aftermath of the Great Recession, graduation rates fell by 2.6 percentage points, according to one recent study.

In response to court rulings, both Kansas and New Mexico increased funding for public education this year.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly signed a bill in April boosting school funding by roughly $90 million a year for the next four years. The state Supreme Court will rule by June 30 on whether the spending plan is constitutional.

That increase — and continued legal action — comes amid the state’s long history of court cases revolving around education funding, going back to the landmark Brown case, which originated in Topeka, Kansas. Plaintiffs in several subsequent court cases have argued that Kansas’ education system violates the state constitution. In 2014, a district court declared the funding cuts unconstitutional and determined that insufficient state education funding correlated with falling test scores for “economically disadvantaged” students and students of color. The state had increased education spending by only 1.9 percent between 2009 and 2014 — and that wasn’t enough even to offset the effects of inflation over that time.

Wealthier school districts can more easily compensate for lower state funding, but less-wealthy districts often suffer under budget cuts, leading to deeper educational divides between students in low- and higher-income districts.

In February 2016, the state Supreme Court ordered the state to “provide equitable levels of funding to the plaintiff school districts” by June 20 of that year, or the Court would shut down the public education system for the next school year. In the ensuing years, Kansas lawmakers avoided a shutdown with stopgap spending bills, but they still failed to fully meet the constitutional requirements, as the court ruled in 2018.

In New Mexico, policymakers boosted the public school budget by nearly $500 million this year, giving raises to all school employees, allocating $113 million toward school districts and charter schools that serve a disproportionate number of high-risk students, and funding a variety of other education-related programs.

The increase stems from lawsuits in 2014 from two groups of parents of educationally disadvantaged Latinx and Native American students against New Mexico and its Public Education Department. The plaintiffs claimed that the state failed to provide a sufficient and uniform system of education to all of the state’s children, as the state constitution guarantees.

In July 2018, the judge presiding over the case ruled for the plaintiffs and ordered New Mexico to provide all students with the programs and services that the state constitution acknowledges will prepare them for college and career success.

K-12 school investment is crucial for communities to thrive and for the economy to offer broad opportunity. State policymakers play an important role in improving these investments, and state courts are critically important when those policymakers fail — as too many have in recent years — to adequately and equitably fund their schools.