Is education a constitutional right? How should we fund education? The issue of school financing has been heavily debated. At the heart of the issue is one central theme: what is the purpose of education?

Public schools are funded through a combination of local property taxes and state and federal funds. School districts levy taxes on local properties to fund neighboring public schools. State funds come from sales taxes, gasoline and franchise taxes, lottery taxes, etc. Federal funds help support programs such as free and reduced lunch programs, technology programs, bilingual programs, and special education. Nevertheless, there is considerable variation from district to district regarding the actual dollar amount schools and students receive. Federal funds make up less than ten percent of school financing nationally. Districts use these funds to support staff, supply materials and supplies, and maintain buildings and infrastructure.

The federal government provides grants and reimbursements primarily through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which funds the school’s food programs) and the U.S. Department of Education. Most federal funding is directed towards students from low-income households. In the United States public school budgets are primarily the responsibility of local and state government. Less than 10% of funds are contributed at the federal level.

History of School Finance Reform 
Wave One 
The history of school finance reform is described in three waves. The first wave dates back to the early 1970s and focuses on the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In the case of Serrano v. Priest (1971), the California Supreme Court held that wealth was a suspect classification and that education was a fundamental right under the Constitution. The public school financing system that relied heavily on local property taxes was a violation of the U.S. and California Constitutions. Two years later, Serrano was overturned in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez. Here, the Court upheld that wealth was not a suspect class and that education is not a fundamental right under the Constitution (because this right is not explicitly or implicitly guaranteed in the text). The courts suggested that plaintiffs might find more relief in state courts; thus the second wave of reform was born.

Wave Two: Education Funding Challenges Under Claims of Equity
Under the second wave, plaintiffs began filing claims in state courts. This wave began in 1973 with Robinson v. Cahill in which the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the state’s education clause mandate was violated because it failed to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of schools. During this wave, cases were brought forth that appealed to issues of equity for all school children. Plaintiffs argued that local funding did not provide efficient and adequate education (which violated the states’ constitutional responsibility, i.e. the equal protection clause).

Wave Three: Education Funding Challenges Under Claims of Adequacy
The third wave of finance reform began in 1989 and focused primarily on education clauses in state constitutions. State courts began to consider how adequately schools were addressing students’ needs. The court claimed that a “thorough and efficient system of schools” is one that develops every child’s oral and written communication skills, mathematical ability, knowledge of social, political, and economic systems, understanding of the processes of government, mental and physical wellness, knowledge of the arts, and vocational skills. In this wave, courts often held that funding schemes denied students a “basic” or “adequate” education.

What is the purpose of education?
My graduate school professor argued that education must be a) adequate, b) effective, c) efficient, and d) equitable.

The challenge of course is that these four aims are often in direct conflict with each other. An effective school—one that focuses on the needs of the whole child and treats each child as an individual- is not the most efficient model. A school that adequately meets the needs of most students fails to address issues of equity. While an efficient school could contribute to its effectiveness, it might work against educational equity.

What school financing models exist that best meet our children’s needs?
What is the true purpose of education?  

To read more about compulsory education and compulsory attendance laws, click here.
To read more about South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, click here

To read more about dropout prevention, click here.
To read more about how schools are funded, click here.
To read more about special education, click here


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