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Rural Schools Fight Funding Lawsuits

Twenty-one small, mostly rural school districts and a group of parents in Colorado should wrap up a fifth and final week of trial today in a landmark school funding lawsuit.

They are challenging the way the state distributes money to its public schools, arguing that an "irrational and arbitrary" system has put some children at a disadvantage. The state's position is that its school districts mostly are succeeding and increased funding doesn't necessarily mean higher student achievement. The Lobato v. State of Colorado case has been in court since 2005.

The case has attracted the attention of rural education advocates, likely because this kind of case isn't unique to Colorado.

Many rural school supporters contend the country is plagued by inequitable funding systems, and they've taken the issue to courts nationwide.

An article we highlighted, written by Marty Strange of the Rural School and Community Trust, says those inadequate and inequitable funding systems are caused in part by weak representation of rural interests when lawmakers craft school funding laws. Rural students often are dispersed among many districts and live in poverty, and those two factors are among "the most virile enemies of political power," Strange writes.

In early 2011, eight of 13 active constitutional challenges to state school funding systems involve rural plaintiffs, and 27 of 32 earlier cases were brought by rural plaintiffs, according to Strange.

In court, rural plaintiffs have prevailed, but it's come at a cost. Strange cites Lake View School District in the Mississippi River Delta region of Arkansas, which was a K-12 district with fewer than 200 students and a nearly 100 percent poverty rate when it filed suit in 1992. The state's Supreme Court ruled 10 years later that the state's funding system was inadequate and inequitable, and that prompted changes. More money went to school operations and facilities, especially in high-needs areas.

But there was pushback, and the legislature mandated afterward that all districts with fewer than 350 students would be closed. Fifty-seven, including Lake View, were merged or consolidated.

In Colorado, the Denver Post reported that plaintiffs kicked off the trial by describing old lockers that would lose their doors with a good tug, and library computers with "out of order" signs taped to their monitors. The state, on the other hand, cited students' test scores that were higher than the national average despite funding differences.

We'll likely have to wait a while for the Denver district court to rule, but I'll be interested to see the outcome.

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