Adequacy and advantage: The moral and legal duties of public schools

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Emily Robertson


Distributive justice, Equal opportunity, School finance, Inequality, Public schools

Subject Categories

Disability and Equity in Education | Education Law | Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education


What are the legal and moral obligations of public schools?

One answer is that they must provide equal opportunity. School finance reform has long been guided by this principle. Recently, however, a different approach has emerged, one based on the concept of educational adequacy. Several courts have ruled that state constitutions guarantee a minimum level of educational provision that falls short of equality. This study probes the moral basis of this approach.

Part I examines reasons for dissatisfaction with equal opportunity. Equal opportunity theories typically aim to reconcile equality and responsibility; they do so, however, by sharply constricting the scope of responsibility, thus diminishing the extent to which people are rewarded for their prudence and effort. In effect, theories of this type are driven toward equal outcomes, and thus fail to convince those who worry that equality penalizes diligence and rewards indolence.

Equal opportunity, then, leads to morally dubious results if it is applied conscientiously. Is there a distributive principle that would compel broader assent? In Part II, I propose a principle of minimum social provision. A just society, I argue, must offer opportunities for universal participation. Each person must have an opportunity to contribute to others and thereby get what she needs in order to live well. In a complex economy, such opportunities depend on education. An adequate education, then, prepares a person to contribute economically in ways fellow-citizens value.

In Part III, I examine the legal implications of this principle. Recently state courts in Kentucky and Alabama have attempted to define educational adequacy. Their definitions turn out to be consistent with the principle of the social minimum. Although the courts also mention equal opportunity, that concept turns out to do very little work in their analysis.

Educational adequacy, in short, is a viable distributive principle. It can be and has been articulated within a legal framework. It follows from widely accepted moral principles. It may not satisfy those who believe justice requires equality, but it does require substantial reform, and would correct many of the conditions equal opportunity advocates are most concerned about.


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