Fiscal Equity in Education: Deconstructing the Reigning Myths and Facing Reality


More than two decades ago, the United States Supreme Court acknowledged gross inequities in the amount of resources made available to school children depending on the school district in which their parents reside. Nevertheless, the Court held in San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, that the plaintiffs had no federal constitutional claim on which to redress the inequalities and indicated that the apparent need for fiscal equity reform must be addressed at the state level. Since that time, there has been extensive fiscal equity reform litigation in the state courts. At last count, thirty-one state courts have issued final rulings in these cases, fourteen of which favored plaintiffs, seventeen of which were for the defendants, and one of which was a mixed result. Four other recent rulings constitute important victories for plaintiffs, two of which may presage a reversal of a prior ruling for defendants. In addition, litigation is currently pending in at least thirteen states, including six cases where plaintiffs are seeking reconsiderations of decisions in which defendants had prevailed.


The fiscal equity litigation of the past two decades involves a trouble-some paradox: although the inequities that plaintiffs demonstrate are more stark and more difficult to dispute than in many other areas of civil rights reform, plaintiffs have had greater difficulty obtaining relief. Equally significant, few of the plaintiff victories have resulted in reforms that have demonstrably ameliorated the inequities. Although inter-district disparities have been reduced in some states, adverse results have followed many court interventions, and overall, the record is disappointing. In some states, court orders have been virtually ignored; in others, the courts have felt compelled repeatedly to strike down legislative responses which were inadequate or unconstitutional or both.


Virtually every fiscal equity case to date, whether won by plaintiffs or defendants, has revealed a deplorable pattern of fiscal inequity. The record in Rodriguez, for example, showed that Edgewood, the poorest of the San Antonio school districts, had an annual per capita expenditure that was only 60 percent of that of Alamo Heights, a nearby affluent district, even though Edgewood was taxing itself at a 24 percent higher tax rate. Thus, almost twice as much money was available for each child in Alamo Heights, a district that was approximately 80 percent White-Anglo, compared to Edgewood, an inner city district that was 90 percent Mexican-American. Moreover, this pattern of inequity has persisted throughout the years. In another striking example, New York City’s 1990-91 average per capita expenditure was $7,494, while the comparable expenditure in suburban Great Neck was $16,625.


How can the inequities be so compelling, but the judicial responses so hard to obtain and remedial improvement so difficult to achieve? The answer to this paradox lies, at least partially, in the fact that legal doctrines in this area, influenced heavily by the Supreme Court’s decision in Rodriguez, have been built on a number of myths which have led most courts and commentators to avoid facing the real issues and remedying the real problems. Part I of this article describes and attempts to debunk these myths. Part II then discusses the problematic underlying policy issues which the myths are calculated to avoid addressing and suggests new approaches to civic dialogue that can induce citizens to confront honestly the difficult dilemmas in this area and then to resolve them.

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