Vanderbilt Law Review


Peter Enrich

First Page



Public education, in most states, is funded in substantial part from local property taxes. As a result, resources vary widely from one school system to another, and schools in poorer communities are often severely underfunded. Over the past quarter century, many of these state financing systems have been challenged as unconstitutional, initially under the federal Equal Protection Clause and subsequently, after the Supreme Court's adverse decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, under equal protection clauses and education clauses included in state constitutions. These state constitutional provisions can support challenges that attack school financing systems either for the inequalities they produce or, alternatively, for the inadequacy of the education that they provide in the poorer communities.

To date, the preponderance of the challenges have focused on equality claims, rather than on adequacy claims. This emphasis on equality can largely be explained by the historical context within which the education finance challenges arose, but the results from the reliance on equality, whether measured by judicial rulings or by legislative reforms, have not been impressive. The disappointing results reflect the significant vulnerabilities of equality arguments when applied to the education finance problem, vulnerabilities that arise in part from the difficulty of defining equality in the context of education and in part from the threat that equality poses for other values and interests that play a prominent role in educational policy. Arguments grounded on the norm of adequacy, by contrast, appear able to avoid many of the pitfalls that equality arguments encounter, although they are not without difficulties of their own. In consequence, poorer school systems and advocates of expanded educational funding might be better served by leaving equality arguments behind, in favor of a strategy relying instead on adequacy arguments.

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