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MI curious answer: Why don't the courts step in on school funding in Michigan?

Aug 4, 2014

Credit Hope for Gorilla / flickr

Kara Gavin wanted to know the answer to this question, "Why does the law allow such persistent disparity in school district funding? Could civil rights laws be used to level the playing field?"

Gavin is getting ready to send her child to elementary school and that has her thinking a lot about school quality for her own family and families all over the state. 

Generous funding is no guarantee of a high quality school, but it certainly can make providing a high quality education easier. Since civil rights laws are designed to make things like voting, housing and employment more equal, could they make education funding more equal too? 

Usually, the answer is no. 

There is no "fundamental right" to education

In the late 1960's a group of parents sued the San Antonio school district because the quality of education was drastically different depending a child's neighborhood. Property taxes were being used to fund the schools, so kids in a part of town with a lot less wealth also had a lot less money going into their schools.

In this specific case, the parents bringing the suit were part of a community that taxed themselves at a much higher rate than their more affluent neighbors to push more money into the schools, but they weren't able to make up the difference. The case was argued before the Supreme Court in 1972. In San Antonio v. Rodriguez the Supreme Court handed down an opinion that included this stunner: Education is not a fundamental right. 

That's right. There is no constitutional right to an education in the United States. 

Still, education is a public good. It's a public service and state laws require free public education be provided. But there is no principal of federal law that says the quality of that education needs to be equal, especially across class lines.

Civil rights laws do have a place in schools. They protect against discrimination in an educational setting based on race, gender, and in some states sexual orientation.  

Even after San Antonio v. Rodriguez, states can still make laws that would equalize school funding. Michigan attempted to do just that about two decades ago with Proposal A.

School funding in Michigan  

Michigan's school finance system leaves less of a gap between the richest and poorest school districts than plenty of other states. This is primarily because the state hasn't used property taxes to fund schools since 1993.(My colleague Dustin Dwyer has a great summary of the crazy events that led to that change).

School funding in Michigan is still not equal across districts. At the same time, financial trouble in many districts has as much to do with costs as with how much money is coming in.

School funding expert David Arsen explained some of this to my colleague Jennifer Guerra for her documentary The Education Gap. I'm paraphrasing, but Arsen pointed out that districts in low-income areas can have some pretty high costs. For example;

  • a disproportionate number of kids with special education needs and not enough funds to cover them
  • old buildings that are costly to maintain,
  • more student needs like tutoring.

Less affluent places have also lost more population since the Great Recession, so there is just less money to go around. More affluent areas have fewer of these issues. On top of that, these districts have more money and goods coming in from fundraising.

The "Right to Read" case and education quality in Michigan 

The San Antonio v. Rodriguez case was a federal case, based on federal law. State laws are another thing, and Michigan has one that requires kids be at grade level or have help getting there.

The ACLU of Michigan is suing the schools in Highland Park, outside Detroit, for having so few of their students up to grade level according to the MEAP. The case is moving through the courts and could have a big impact on education standards and education quality. 

The Right to Read case notwithstanding, the San Antonio v. Rodriguez decision along with the school bussing cases were a clear message from the highest court in the country that where education is concerned, change is more likely to come from lawmakers, not the courts.