Action on School Finance Lawsuits Heats Up

Last Updated: September 24, 2014

This article appeared in the September 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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Advocates for additional funding for schools in Washington and Texas are pleased with recent court rulings that found those states are failing to meet constitutional requirements to fund schools to constitutional levels. Legal action was taken in both states after legislatures cut funding in the wake of the recession and failed to follow previous court orders regarding funding levels and approaches. In Mississippi, a new lawsuit has been filed charging that the state is failing to fully fund its school finance law. Read more about what is happening in each state.


The Washington Supreme Court has found state lawmakers in contempt for failing to come up with a plan for increasing funding for schools. A 2012 ruling in McCleary v Washington had found that the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund basic public education. It gave the state until 2017–18 to come up with an estimated $6 billion in additional annual funding and required the state to submit progress reports. (See prior RPM coverage here.) In January of this year, the Court directed the legislature to include a timeline for how it would increase funding.

The legislature failed to submit the required timeline and funding levels are below what is needed to meeting the 2017–18 goal.

In its contempt ruling, the Court was clear that the legislature “may not eliminate an offering from the basic education program for reasons unrelated to educational policy, such as fiscal crisis or mere expediency.” The Court also indicated that “dependable and regular tax sources” must be the basis for education funding. It did not, however, specify punishments that could be imposed if the legislature fails to act.

The legislature is expected to address the finance system in its 2015 session.


State District Judge John Dietz has ruled that the legislature had “failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools.” Dietz gave the legislature until July to address the finance system.

Dietz found the finance system unconstitutional on both adequacy and equity grounds. Addressing adequacy, Dietz wrote that the system “cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texans” and that it lacks enough funding to accomplish the required “general diffusion of knowledge.” Addressing equity, Dietz wrote that Texas students do not have equal access to educational funding. Dietz also found that the finance system effectively imposes an unconstitutional statewide property tax.

More than 600 districts, representing three-quarters of the states five million public education students, are participating in the case. The districts are part of four separate groups whose lawsuits were combined after the legislature cut $4.5 billion from education funding in 2011. (Read prior RPM coverage of the various legal challenges to the Texas finance system here.) The districts argued that funding was insufficient to meet additional testing and new graduation requirements and to serve a growing student population.

The state, which has announced plans to appeal the decision, argued that it scaled back the new testing and graduation requirements and restored some funding. But plaintiffs countered that the funding is still hundreds of dollars less per pupil than it was before the recession. High poverty districts, districts with low property wealth, and districts with high percentages of English Language Learners have also argued that funding was insufficient to meet the needs of their students. Dietz found that the legislative funding increases did not address the underlying constitutional issues.


At least 20 Mississippi school districts have joined a lawsuit charging that the state is failing to fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). MAEP is the 1997 law that establishes the state’s school funding formula. It has been fully funded only twice. Plaintiffs charge that public schools have been underfunded by $1.5 billion since 2010.

The lawsuit was filed by former Governor Ronnie Musgrove. Other advocates for full MAEP funding, however, argue that a ballot initiative requiring the state to fund schools is a better approach than a lawsuit. The organization Better Schools, Better Jobs is leading a petition drive that would ask voters to demand full funding for MAEP.

The lawsuit seeks a court declaration that legislators be obligated to fully fund MAEP. It also seeks back funding for plaintiff districts. Other districts have 30 days from the initial filing on August 28 to join the suit.

Read more:

Washington State

Prior RPM coverage:

The Washington opinion:


State coverage:

This Education Week article includes a timeline of school finance litigation in Texas dating to 1984:

The opinion:


Better Schools, Better Jobs

Read more from the September 2014
Rural Policy Matters.