The Bill for Rights: State and Local Financing of Public Education and Indigent Defense


For decades, activists in the seemingly unrelated fields of public education and indigent defense have waged the same battle: they have tried to shift the financing of these public services from local entities to states. They have cited a wide range of reasons for doing so, from the vagaries of local politics to fundamental fairness. They have argued on behalf of residents of the biggest cities and the most remote hamlets. They have used litigation and they have used legislation. One approach these advocates have rarely tried, however, is talking to one another. As reform efforts in one area or the other have succeeded or failed in various states over the years, advocates have missed valuable opportunities to capitalize on each other’s experiences. This article aims to help begin such a dialogue. Consider a school finance system like that challenged in Michigan in the early 1970s, in which one school district could raise $10,125 per student per year while another could levy the same tax rate and raise just $54.13. Even if, as some studies suggest, district expenditures are not directly related to such “result” measures as test scores, it strains credulity to claim that disparities like these do not affect the quality of the education children receive. Basing indigent defense on local revenues leads to similar problems. Such systems, poorly financed, can cause their direct users-students and criminal defendants-great harm. Moreover, education and indigent defense are services that benefit the broader community. It is not in any school district’s or county’s interest to allow its neighbor’s children to go unschooled or its defendants to go uncounseled; all localities would benefit from financing at the state level, where high tax revenues from one region can compensate for low tax revenues from another. Economic disparities are not the only reason to favor state financing; local politics present a significant threat to funding, especially in the case of indigent defense. Forcing local voters to choose between financing criminal defense counsel or the town fire department will lead to the same result every time. This problem exists for school financing as well: many small towns are home to retirees on fixed incomes who frequently oppose young parents with children in the schools in debates over tax rates. A full examination of whether state financing necessarily produces better results than local financing in each field is beyond the scope of this discussion. Such an examination would likely take the form of two separate studies, if for no other reason than that “better results” in public education and indigent defense would need to be defined in different-and not directly comparable-ways. Nonetheless, these are powerful reasons to support greater state support of both public education and indigent defense

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