Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



Public education in the United States faces a crisis. Financially strapped state and local governments find funding more and more difficult to supply; as a result, the quality of public education suffers. Predictably citizens are concerned, yet they resist paying increased taxes to meet the rising costs.

School trust lands provide one potential source of extra revenue. Though their existence is not well known, these lands are tremendous assets held by most states other than the original thirteen. In general, they have produced significant amounts of revenue for public education, yet historically state management of the lands has been marred by incompetence. Many of the original school trust lands have been sold or leased to private individuals for long terms at minimum values. Therefore, states have received or are receiving little return on these lands. Many states are seeking to increase revenue from the trust lands they still retain by improving management of and legislation governing school lands. In another effort to increase revenue, some states, such as Mississippi, are seeking to recover title to school lands that they have conveyed to private individuals. The Secretary of State of Mississippi has filed numerous lawsuits seeking to recover lands that were sold for inadequate consideration and also has sought to renegotiate leases that were executed for inadequate consideration.' Although current attempts to recover school lands are not widespread, Mississippi has been successful, and most states that were granted school lands have the capability to file these suits and recover their lands under the existing state of the law. As state budgets continue to tighten, these lost trust lands most likely will become the subject of more litigation and more controversy. Since original school trust lands comprise over 400 million acres, many of which are economically valuable for their minerals, an upheaval in land title will create serious consequences for many individuals and private companies. The occupants of these lands are vulnerable.

This Note argues that promoting stability in land title to school trust lands is more important and economically more productive than recovering improperly sold school lands. To achieve this end, this Note suggests that the current legal framework that governs school lands, especially the adequate consideration test, should be modified. Part II outlines the source and history of the school land grants and the nature of the states' trust obligations. Part III describes how these lands were sold improperly and how states now can seek to recover them by alleging either that inadequate consideration was paid for the land, or that the land was not sold according to the applicable statutory procedures. Part IV discusses and assesses legal frameworks for eliminating or limiting recovery of school lands. This Note proposes that courts limit recovery of school lands by applying statutes of limitation, estoppel, laches, or marketable record title statutes against the states. This proposal would stabilize title to school lands, but is also sympathetic to the states' interests in the lands and would allow the states a limited recovery. Most importantly, the proposed framework is fair, allowing bona fide purchasers, to retain their interests in school lands.