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The Education Adequacy Movement – The Only Game in Town

“When it comes to advancing equal educational opportunity through the courts, the adequacy movement is the only game in town,” states Michael A. Rebell, executive director of the National Access Network and of the Campaign for Educational Equity, Teachers College, Columbia University, in two important articles that were published this month. In the first of these pieces, “Sleepless After Seattle? There’s Still Hope for Equal Educational Opportunity,” published in Education Week on February 13, Rebell surveys the education reform landscape in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Seattle and Louisville cases. In light of this decision, which severely constrains school districts’ abilities to promote voluntary racial integration, Rebell stresses the importance of the state court education adequacy cases in promoting educational equity. The second article, “Equal Opportunity and the Courts,” which appears in the February issue of Phi Delta Kappan, defends the adequacy movement from critics’ charges that adequacy suits have not resulted in improvement in student performance and that the state courts’ have overstepped their proper constitutional boundaries in these cases.

Regarding the “success” of these cases, Rebell points out that many critics purport to expect judicial remedies to effect marked improvement immediately upon their implementation, even though the legislative and executive branches have generally failed to improve student performance after decades of wrestling with these problems. He argues that, when allowed the necessary time, these remedies do produce results. “Virtually all studies have concluded that the litigations have resulted in a narrowing of inter-district expenditure disparities and an increase in educational spending.” And these expenditures have yielded demonstrable results in states where they have been in effect for sufficient time periods:

In New Jersey, from 1999 to 2005, mean scale scores rose 19 points in fourth grade mathematics, with the greatest increases occurring in the Abbott districts, almost halving the achievement gaps between these districts and the rest of the state. In Massachusetts, the failure rate of 10th graders taking the highly challenging MCAS exams has dropped dramatically from 45 percent to 15 percent in math and from 34 percent to 11 percent in English language arts.

Rebell’s analysis of the courts’ proper constitutional role begins with an historical review of the reasons that adequacy clauses were added to state constitutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. These clauses were adopted to ensure that citizens of the new American republic would be prepared properly to carry out the challenging responsibilities of creating a democratic society and to guarantee that the “common schools” would be “adequate” to equip all children for these tasks. The framers of these august constitutional clauses insisted on giving constitutional status to students’ right to a decent education precisely because they feared future legislative backsliding.

Rebell debunks arguments that courts are not qualified to take on this role and argues instead that courts have a clear duty to protect students’ educational rights. He notes, however, that education adequacy litigation has proved most successful in states where a colloquy has developed among the three government branches, with each branch playing the role for which it is best suited. Within that colloquy, legislatures are better equipped to develop specific reform policies and executive agencies are most effective in undertaking day-to-day implementation tasks, while the courts, with their principled approach to issues and their long-term staying power, are essential for providing continuing guidance on constitutional requirements and sustained commitment to meeting constitutional goals. Yet too often the courts have bowed to criticism that they are playing too “activist” a role, leaving oversight and implementation of their rulings in the hands of the other branches. It is in these instances that backsliding has occurred, or that reforms simply failed to get off the ground in the first place.

It is important that advocates, policymakers, and the public at large understand the critical need for the state courts to persevere in their responsibility to uphold the affirmative rights to quality basic education written into their constitutions. With the virtual abandonment of active pursuit of school integration by the federal courts, the broad vision of equal educational opportunity proclaimed by Brown v. Board of Education can now only be realized if the state courts are willing to continue down the principled path that so many of them have properly begun to follow.