The Wyoming Supreme Court has denied the state’s petition for review in the school funding case brought last year against the state by the Wyoming Education Association (WEA) and eight intervening school districts. The WEA’s complaint alleges that the state had in recent years failed to follow through and update the “cost-based model” for funding education established by the state Supreme Court in the 1990s in the Campbell v. State cases. They claim that the current funding model allocates $7,000 per teacher below the actual costs districts must pay to fill teaching positions.
In December 2022, Laramie County District Court Judge Peter H. Froelicher had denied the State’s motion to dismiss and upheld the WEA’s standing to pursue the suit. Judge Froelicher stated that at the trial, the plaintiffs must prove that the state has been underfunding the schools. If the plaintiffs meet that burden, the court held that the state will have to come up with a “compelling reason” for the inadequate funding because he reads the Wyoming Supreme Court’s decision in the Campbell case to mean that education is a fundamental right under the Wyoming constitution.
According to the plaintiffs, the fact that education is a fundamental constitutional right means that there is a mandatory constitutional obligation to fully fund a complete, uniform and high-quality education for students in Wyoming, and the Legislature has no discretion about whether to fully fund all components of that education. The WEA’s complaint stated that the Legislature can’t choose to inadequately fund education based on a claimed lack of revenue or availability of funds.
The state’s petition for review had asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to clarify this issue. By denying that petition, the Supreme Court was, in essence, accepting, at least at this stage, the demanding “compelling state interest” standard that the trial court will impose on the defendants in the trial that is now scheduled to begin in June, 2024.
In an unanimous decision issued last month, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the Wahkiakum school district’s claim that the language in the Washington constitution that guarantees students an “ample” education entitled them to sufficient state funding to provide adequate school buildings for its children. The Supreme Court held that the state constitution:
(1) treats school capital construction costs differently than it treats other education costs and (2) requires the State and local school districts to share the responsibility for those school capital construction costs. For that reason, we hold that the constitution does not include capital construction costs within the category of “education” costs for which the State alone must make “ample provision.”
The court’s lengthy decision reviewed and reaffirmed the Court’s holding in past education adequacy cases, that “It is certainly true that students need buildings, labs, and gyms to gain an education,” But, they noted, “it is clear that the constitution as a whole treats funding for school capital costs differently than it treats funding for other education costs.”
It creates a “workable scheme,” they wrote, in which districts can raise money from passage of levies and bonds, and, if eligible, obtain funding from the state’s school construction program. The decision leaves untouched the existing process of requiring districts to provide some money upfront before they qualify for a grant from the state’s School Construction Assistance Program.
Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson, in a concurring opinion, said the current system isn’t working as intended and can be unfair.
“The existing program does not help the districts that need it the most because they cannot pass the necessary bond,” he wrote. “The State should not selectively deny funds for high-quality education environments based on the district’s lack of local monetary support.”
He suggested that on remand the parties should discuss how much responsibility the State may bear for school capital construction costs if it is less than 100 percent of those costs, and whether article IX, section 3 creates an obligation that the common school construction fund be distributed in a manner that is accessible to low income, rural districts like the plaintiff Wahkiakum school district.
The trial that was scheduled to take place in September, 2023 in Contoocook Valley School District (Conval) v. State, has been postponed, pending the court’s consideration and ruling on the state’s motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs have claimed that the state aid amounts provided by the legislature have failed to meet its obligation to fully fund an adequate education as required by Article 83 of the New Hampshire Constitution. The New Hampshire Supreme Court had ruled in 2021 that the plaintiffs were entitled to a full evidentiary hearing on this claim.
In its 1974 decision in Milliken v. Bradley that held that suburban school districts surrounding the segregated Detroit city schools could not be included in a metropolitan area desegregation plan, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that:
No single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools; local autonomy has long been thought essential both to the maintenance of community concern and support for public schools and to quality of the educational process.
The Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio Ind’t Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez that ruled that education is not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution also relied substantially on the premise that local control “is not only support vital to continued public support of the schools, but it is of overriding importance from an educational standpoint as well.”
Now, in a major law review article (Localism, Pretext and the Color of School Dollars, 107 Minn. L. Rev. 1415 (2023)) Derek Black, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina, writes that the Supreme Court issued these momentous statements (that have been followed by numerous other federal and state courts) “Without bothering to seriously engage education history” and “with no empirical support.”
Black’s own painstaking historical research has revealed that localism is a pretext for ignoring inequality rather than a legitimate constitutional justification for it. First, it demonstrates that the sole constitutional obligation to provide public education has long rested with the state, not local communities. As early as 1780, state constitutions required states to provide for public education. Local communities were, of course, vital to providing that education, but local taxes and funding were a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. States authorized and relied on local taxes and funding, not because of some normative value of localism, but because property taxes were new to most citizens. State leaders believed that the prevalent anti-tax sentiments might initially be best navigated at the local level. Thus, localism arose, contrary to courts’ assumption, as an extension or delegation of states’ education duty.
Second, this Article reveals that localism’s resurgence in the South during the late 1800s was a means to segregate and defund Black education. During Reconstruction, southern states had constitutionalized states’ public education duty to ensure that all persons, including African Americans and poor whites, received an education that prepared them to participate as full citizens. State leadership transitioned schooling from a randomly occurring phenomenon in individual communities to an expanding system of education.
After Reconstruction, public education became, alongside voting rights, the primary target of those aiming to reduce African Americans to second-class citizenship. States amended their constitutions and laws to require school segregation. At the same time, they fundamentally altered how they funded and managed education. Fearing that segregated school taxes and funds at the state level would draw federal intervention, state leaders sought to achieve the same practical result and avoid federal oversight by moving more funding and decision-making to the local level. While formal school segregation is clearly unconstitutional, many aspects of Jim Crow’s local funding scheme remain, accounting for continuing disparity and inequality.