Inadequate? Or ineffective?

Adequacy lawsuits are not the way to improve education

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Despite the excessive swelling of state spending over the past several years — including a mammoth 36 percent increase in the 2003-05 budget — both Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford (D) and Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio (R) continue to insist that there is nowhere left to cut.

According to Horsford, lawmakers "cut all we could cut in the last session." And even though state and local governments in Nevada will spend approximately $10 billion on K-12 education over the current biennium, Raggio opines that budget cuts to education could result in a lawsuit.

Indeed, several states have faced so-called "adequacy lawsuits" demanding significant boosts in education spending. While the word "adequate" means "sufficient to meet need" according to the American Heritage College Dictionary, to the education establishment the word only means more.

Like many other states, Nevada's constitution, which states "[t]he legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools," requires the legislature to fund public education. Though courts in nine states have refused to hear adequacy lawsuits, some courts have overstepped their constitutional roles and interpreted these vaguely phrased articles to require increases in educational expenditures.

Dr. Richard Phelps, author of NPRI's 2006 report Thoroughly Inadequate, noted that courts have largely relied on two ways to determine "adequate" funding. The first method is to rely on a panel of professionals who, not surprisingly, are myopic insiders, some with financial motives for increased spending. The second method is to commission an "adequacy study" which examines highly successful schools. Unfortunately, these studies typically examine schools in predominately white and affluent neighborhoods. Under either method, reality has little relevance.

Even though the foundations of the adequacy lawsuits are intellectually weak, the results are even less impressive.

According to Eric A. Hanusheck and Alfred A. Lindseth, authors of Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses, "virtually no peer-reviewed or other credible articles or studies claim to have found significant, positive effects on student achievement in states that have implemented adequacy remedies."

Wyoming's per-pupil spending in 1995 (when adequacy-litigants won in court) already ranked above the national average. By 2005 the state ranked second highest in the nation in per-pupil spending, adjusting for cost of living. Despite the increase, both white and Hispanic students in Wyoming failed to keep pace with the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. Embarrassingly, Wyoming is outperformed by two regional neighbors that spend below the national average, North Dakota and Montana.

In New Jersey, after a decade and more than $3 billion in additional expenditures, improvement among fourth-grade black students on the NAEP reading exam was significantly lower than black students nationally averaged. Evidence of improvement did not appear until 2007, 15 years after the adequacy lawsuit. Yet, between 1992 and 2007, black students in Florida — a state spending some $7,350 less per pupil — saw achievement gains almost twice as large as in New Jersey.

Massachusetts, the most celebrated state among adequacy litigants, is also outclassed by Florida. While gains in Massachusetts are indeed impressive, white, black and Hispanic students in Florida saw superior gains on the NAEP fourth-grade reading exam from 1992 to 2007. Amazingly, blacks in Florida saw reading gains that were three times larger than those of blacks in Massachusetts. Florida's overall achievement gains in fourth-grade math also exceeded the remarkable gains in Massachusetts.

Ironically, courts in Florida threw out an adequacy lawsuit on the ground that it would have violated the constitutional separation of powers between state courts and the state legislature.

Mountains of empirical evidence suggest that increasing educational expenditures is nearly always an inadequate response to subpar school performance. Hanushek and Lindseth conclude that, "while court-ordered dollars have bought a host of services and facilities for schools ... these appear not to have generally bought the improved student performance so long sought and so urgently needed."

How much we spend matters far less than how effectively we spend the available resources. Just as Nevada needs more intelligent, efficient and frugal government, the state is also in dire need of a more dynamic, innovative and market-oriented public education system.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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