For two decades and more, civil rights groups have been filing lawsuits claiming that the supposed underfunding of urban schools is unconstitutional. How successful have these suits been, even on their own terms? “In one of the most notable such cases, decided in 1984, a federal judge in Missouri ordered a doubling of Kansas City’s property tax, an income tax surcharge and extra state contributions to finance $2 billion in spending on Kansas City’s schools. What followed was a decade of lavish excess — new schools boasting television and animation studios, a planetarium, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, even a zoo, a Cato Institute study found. By 1991 Kansas City was shelling out $9,412 per student, compared with $2,854 to $5,956 in the suburbs. Despite this flood of dollars, white enrollment dropped from 27% to 20%, and the test scores of black students in Kansas City didn’t improve.
“State courts have gotten into the act, too. So far, courts in 19 states have found violations of state constitutions in the way schools are funded, according to the Education Commission of the States. Some of these rulings are pretty creative. In June New York’s highest court ruled that the state is violating a constitutional requirement to provide ‘a system of free common schools’ to New York City students, despite the fact that $10,795 per student was spent in the city’s schools in 2000-01. That was slightly lower than the New York state average of $10,922, but greater than the average spent in any other state.
“Rather than wait for independent plaintiffs, school districts themselves now sometimes bring these suits as a revenue grab.” (Ira Carnahan, “Desegregation’s Broken Promises”, Forbes, Nov. 10) See Paul Ciotti, “Money And School Performance: Lessons from the Kansas City Desegregation Experiment”, Cato Policy Analysis, Mar. 16, 1998.