Education finance equity: Judicial treatment of key issues and impact of that treatment on reform

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Timothy Smeeding


Finance equity, Judicial, Reform

Subject Categories

Law | Public Administration | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Social and Behavioral Sciences


American reformers have long been concerned by substantial differences in the money and resources available to different school districts. Troubled particularly by the education provided to students from poor and minority families, reformers have gone to court to challenge school finance disparities in many states and have won in close to half. In this dissertation, I undertook a systematic, structured qualitative analysis of state supreme court opinions concerning education finance reform from 1971 to 1996. The systematic nature of the study resulted in several key findings.

First, as in other, less-structured studies, I found that judges were more likely to interpret state constitutions as requiring the state school system to guarantee all students access to sufficient resources to acquire an "adequate" education rather as requiring equality of funding or educational resources across school districts. I also found, however, that a court's acceptance of an adequacy standard often played a conservative role in school finance reform litigation. While courts were more likely to accept an adequacy standard, they were also more likely to find it met and to uphold the existing school funding system. In contrast, the few courts imposing an equality standard were much less likely to find it met and, therefore, were more likely to require reform. Second, few courts have explicitly addressed whether states must provide additional funding to districts with high concentrations of at-risk students. Those addressing this issue have split.

In addition, using New York state data, I simulated the likely impact of reforms implemented in response to different court resolutions of two key issues: whether the constitution imposes a high or low minimum adequacy standard and whether the state is required to provide additional funding for districts with high proportions of at-risk students. I found that troubled, big city districts benefitted from reforms requiring a high minimum adequacy standard, with or without adjustment for concentrations of at-risk students. They also benefitted from a low minimum adequacy standard, but only if it required adjustment for at-risk students.


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