Washington, D.C. — According to a new report released today by the Center for American Progress, conservative governors and legislatures across the country are lashing out at state supreme courts that rule in favor of equal funding for education. In response to judicial rulings in favor of students, lawmakers in every corner of the country are trying to limit judicial authority, remove justices from the state supreme court, or cut off funding to the courts or the plaintiff school districts.
The report takes an in-depth look at the actions of governors and legislatures in Kansas, Alaska, New Jersey, and Washington state to defy their state supreme courts. Many of the lawmakers’ proposals in these four states violate the separation of powers principles in their respective state constitutions. To get around this issue, some of these lawmakers want to amend their state constitutions to give the executive and legislative branches more control over the courts.
This backlash comes as more courts are taking a stand to enforce constitutional provisions requiring states to provide an adequate education for all students, not just those in districts with more valuable property and more property tax revenue. The increasing focus on measurable results—in the form of student testing—in education has changed the nature of the judiciary’s role in education funding. With measurable goals and testing data, courts can more easily determine whether a school system is achieving its goal of educating students.
These cases often stem from litigation that began decades ago. In some states, the respective high courts had recently deemed the education-funding systems constitutional. But when the 2007–2009 recession led to falling tax revenues, many legislators responded by cutting money for education. These cuts led the New Jersey and Kansas high courts to restore judicial oversight of school financing.
These state supreme courts are the only institutions standing in the way of conservative legislators’ austerity agenda for education. But, as legislators work to defy the courts, they harm the judicial branch’s ability to serve this role. A real threat exists that education funding in some states could be left to the whims of legislators who do not care about students in districts with fewer resources.
The analysis suggests that if advocates for better education want courts to order legislators to fix broken schools, they must act to protect judicial independence and ensure that courts can enforce constitutional mandates without fear of retaliation by speaking out against efforts to undermine the courts. Voters should tell their legislators that they oppose all efforts to limit their state supreme court’s authority to interpret and enforce the state’s constitutional mandate for an equal education.
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