Board of Education, Levittown Union Free School District v. NYQUIST: A Return to Federal Equal Protection In School Financing Cases


Since 1968, courts in sixteen states have considered challenges to public school financing laws. In each case plaintiffs charged that reliance on local property taxes to support public education discriminated against children in school districts where property values were relatively low. School districts with little valuable real estate complained that although they were compelled to impose higher than average tax rates to raise necessary school revenues, they were unable to match the spending of school districts with wealthier tax bases. Courts in eight states invalidated state-wide school funding schemes as discriminatory under various state constitutional provisions and the United States Constitution’s equal protection clause. In eight other states the courts upheld school financing schemes.

In the pivotal case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the United States Supreme Court rejected claims that the Texas school financing system violated the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment. Following the Rodriguez decision in 1973, the focus in school finance litigation shifted from the federal equal protection clause to state constitutional provisions guaranteeing equal protection of the laws or a right to education itself. It was not until 1978 that a court once again relied upon the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution in a school financing decision. In Board of Education, Levittown Union Free School District v. Nyquist, Justice L. Kingsley Smith of the Nassau County Supreme Court in New York declared the state’s school financing statute invalid under both the New York and the United States Constitutions. The Levittown court ruled on state constitutional grounds alone that there existed an unwarranted link between property wealth and school spending. The court’s federal equal protection ruling came on the separate question whether the school districts of New York’s largest cities were treated unfairly due to the effects of “municipal overburden” on the cities’ educational spending. Municipal overburden is the cumulative weight of inexorable demands for municipal services outside the educational sphere; its effect is to leave a relatively small share of urban property tax revenues for public education. On the issues of municipal overburden and a number of other “burdens” unique to large city school districts, the Levittown court found the Rodriguez holding distinguishable, and ruled that the New York system violates the federal equal protection clause.

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