Courts shouldn’t make education policy
In a recent decision, the California Court of Appeal ruled that it was up to the California Legislature, not the judiciary, to set the level of spending for schools. The court’s ruling makes good sense, not only for legal reasons, but also in light of judicial history and education research.
The 1st District Court of Appeal’s decision came in the consolidated appeal of Campaign for Quality Education v. California and Maya Robles-Wong v. California. 2016 DJDAR 3853 (April 20, 2016). In their appeal, the plaintiff-appellants alleged that California violated Sections 1 and 5 of Article IX of the California Constitution.
Specifically, the appellants alleged that these sections provided for, according to the appellate court, “a judicially-enforceable right to an education of ‘some quality’ for all public school children, and alternatively, that the Legislature is currently violating its constitutional obligations to ‘provide for’ and keep up and support’ the ‘system of common schools’ by its current educational financing system.” In other words, the appellants wanted the court to find that there was some minimal level of funding required to ensure a quality education for public school students.
The court, however, in its 2-1 decision, refused to become embroiled in setting education quality and spending levels. “To the contrary,” said the court majority, “the language of these constitutional sections do not include qualitative or funding elements that may be judicially enforced by the courts.” Rather, “the constitutional sections leave the difficult and policy-laden questions associated with educational adequacy and funding to the legislative branch.”
Further, the court majority, citing the landmark Serrano v. Priest education funding case, noted that the California Supreme Court found no constitutional mandate for the state Legislature “to provide funds for each child in the State at some magic level to produce either an adequate-quality educational program or a high-quality educational program.”
The appellants’ funding claim would have required the court to impose its “judgment over that of the Legislature in order to determine whether particular policy benefits public education,” which the court said, “we decline to do.” The court’s declination was prudent given the history of failed judicial interventions into education spending and policy decision-making.
Perhaps the most egregious example of judicial intervention occurred between 1985 and 1997 in Kansas City, Missouri, where a federal district court judge set himself up as the policymaking czar for the city’s school system. Over the 12-year period, Judge Russell Clark ordered the state and the local school district to spend more than $2 billion on a variety of projects and programs in order to improve student achievement.
According to a report on the case by the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute, “With that money, the district built 15 new schools and renovated 54 others.” These schools had amenities ranging from robotics labs to new libraries to even a planetarium. One high school “had 900 interconnected computers, one for every student in the school,” which was a cutting-edge innovation in the 1990s.
In addition, the district-wide student to instructional staff ratio was reduced down to less than 13-to-1, the lowest of any major school district in the nation. The Cato report noted, “For working parents, the district provided all-day kindergarten for youngsters and before- and after-school programs for older students.”
Judge Clark even ordered massive increases in local property taxes to pay for, among other things, a 40 percent increase in the salaries of teachers and other school personnel.
Kansas City’s per-pupil spending ranking shot up to number one among the 280 largest school districts in the country. But in the end, all that spending produced very little improvement in student achievement.
According to the Cato report, “Year after year the test scores would come out, the achievement levels would be no higher than before, and the black-white [performance] gap would be no smaller.”
“I truly believed,” said then-Kansas City school board president Sue Fulson, “if we gave teachers and administrators everything they said they needed that they would truly make a huge difference.” She was confident that “we would see not just results, but dramatic results, educationally.” When those results failed to appear, Fulson said it was “my bitterest disappointment.”
Kansas City’s failure is not surprising given the weight of education research on education spending and quality. Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek, one of the nation’s top education economists, has warned: “Simple conclusions such as ‘lack of resources is the fundamental factor driving low achievement’ have been contradicted by the evidence: dramatic increases in resources have not led to the improvement in performance of our students.”
A recent comprehensive multi-year analysis of Michigan’s education spending and student testing data by the Mackinac Center, a public policy research organization, found that “there is no statistically significant correlation between how much money public schools in Michigan spend and how well students perform academically.” To explain this lack of correlation, the Mackinac researchers posit, “public schools, on average, fail to spend additional resources in ways that measurably improve student achievement.”
Given the myriad factors that influence the quality of education, many of which have little to do with state spending levels, it is no wonder that the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the respected research arm of the California Legislature, has said: “Research and experience suggest that how we spend available resources is at least as important as how much we spend on education.”
In the majority opinion in Campaign for Quality Education, Justice Martin Jenkins wrote that the state constitution does not allow courts “to dictate to the Legislature, a coequal branch of government, how to best exercise its constitutional powers to encourage education and provide for and support a system of common schools throughout the state.” By limiting judicial intervention into education policymaking, the court not only remained true to the intent of the state constitution, but it also saved itself from having to make determinations on a litany of in-the-weeds issues that it would almost certainly get wrong.