In 1973, a Supreme Court ruling that education is not a fundamental right under the federal constitution resulted in a rapid increase in court cases challenging state methods of funding public schools.
Each state is obligated to provide its residents with a system of public education under the rules of its constitution. Many of the litigations challenging state funding sought relief under state education clauses or equal protection (equity) clauses in state constitutions, while a few cases (Alaska, Pennsylvania and Kansas) challenged the state under Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act and the post-Civil War anti-discrimination statute.
There are two common approaches to presenting a case against state-funding procedures. Equity claims focus primarily on the inequities between resources in low-income and wealthier districts. Adequacy claims point to insufficient funding schemes to provide for a constitutionally adequate education. This could apply to anything from class size and teacher quality to curriculum and professional development.
Equity claims were the most common challenge to state funding during the 1970s and 1980s, but plaintiffs won only about one-third of those cases. As legal strategies shifted more toward adequacy claims in 1989, about two-thirds of school funding decisions found in favor of the plaintiff.
Lawsuits against state-funding methods have been brought in 44 out of 50 states. As more litigation cases emerge, state legislatures and education departments continue their struggle to define what states are constitutionally obligated to provide students, so they can succeed in the workplace and become effective citizens in the modern world.