Weighing responsibility for providing equitable and adequate education 



The community has an interest in ensuring children receive an adequate education. But how do we define community? 


At the heart of any discussion about school funding are questions of public values, public responsibility, and membership in a community. Whose responsibility is it to maintain and fund public schools? How broadly is access provided? Is the entire state responsible for directing the education of all its children, or do we leave this responsibility to each community? Do we compare levels of equity and access within a town, a county, a state, the nation? The resolution of these questions is, in large part, dependent on whether an individual has a legal right to an education and at what community level (i.e., local, state, or federal) that right is confirmed.  

In the United States, education historically has been a function of the immediate community. During colonial times, groups of families, usually through religious connections, provided education only for those among them. As colonies developed into states, many created public systems of education to serve the children of land holders. In both cases, the responsibility for supporting and resourcing schools remained within the smaller community.  

The requirement to provide for public education appears in every state constitution, yet funding for public schools has been dependent to some degree on the local community’s property tax revenue, rather than statewide revenues. During the mid-20th century, states took a growing role in regulating and resourcing local school districts, many of them shifting from full reliance on local property tax to a system of shared local and state resources. This enables the state to fulfill its obligation to provide resources for communities that lack the local tax base to adequately fund their schools.  

The U.S. Supreme Court has had several opportunities to consider whether the Constitution grants a federal right to an education. 

As we have moved across the arc of history, local communities, states, and regions have become more interdependent, a change that is reflected in the similarity of legal structures and requirements across the states and the increase in the federal government’s role in our daily lives. But the historical basis of public education continues to bind us. Today, we perpetuate the notion of “local control” of education while also relying on the broader statewide base to support schools.  

Of course, if we thought of education as a national priority, recognized it as a federal right, and perceived the “community” as the nation, rather than the town or state, public education would have an even broader and more financially diverse revenue base, and the quality of children’s education would not depend so much on the town or state in which they reside. 

A federal interest 

Early in our history, there was some federal interest in ensuring access to public education. In the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, Congress mandated that each township reserve a central lot for public schools and required that, as the territories develop into states, they use these as public resources to “forever encourage” schools. But there is no specific mention of a right to an education in the federal constitution. Absent that, the federal government has no authority to directly regulate public schools, and there is no specific individual right to an education.  

The U.S. Supreme Court has had several opportunities to consider whether the Constitution grants a federal right to an education. Notably in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), it underscored the importance of education, and it held that if a state provides an education for students, it may not deny any group of students that opportunity, but it did not say that the federal constitution requires states to provide an education. In often-quoted language, the Court noted: 

Today education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. . . . In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.  

The issue passed in front of the U.S. Supreme Court again in San Antonio v. Rodriguez (1973). This case presented a challenge to the uneven distribution of resources to school districts through the Texas school finance system. Plaintiffs in the case, representing students from low-property-wealth school districts claimed that the system, which relied on local property taxes, violated the federal Equal Protection Clause by distributing funding inequitably. The Court held that there was no constitutional violation, since education was not a federal constitutional right. If the state had a legitimate rationale, Texas could have various levels of school funding.  

State by state 

Since San Antonio v. Rodriguez, federal litigation over equitable access to education has taken a back seat to state cases focusing on children’s rights to an education as vested in state constitutions. Many such cases have been litigated at the state level.  

Thus, questions about adequacy and the equitable distribution of resources for public schools have been determined on a state-by-state basis. In 22 states, courts have agreed with plaintiffs that the state’s system has fallen short of what is required by the state’s constitution, while in 16 other states, the state funding system has been upheld. Often, courts have accepted local control as the explanation for considerable differences in opportunities for children from different districts. Yet in the Montana case (Helena Elementary School Dist. v. State, 1989), the state Supreme Court responded negatively to this rationale, finding that local control requires districts to have adequate funds to control.  

Public school advocates have continued to press courts and state legislatures to provide additional resources for students, and new cases are continually filed arguing for children’s right to an equitable and adequate education. (For a discussion, see “Litigating for resources for high-need students” in the October 2018 Kappan.) The newest in this line of cases brings forward an innovative argument seeking the recognition of a federal right to an education.  

A civics-based argument 

In November 2018, a school finance suit, Cook v. Raimondo, was filed in the federal district court in Rhode Island. The case argues that the children represented (a class action of children from various Rhode Island public schools) do not have access to an education that enables them to be active participants in our democracy. While cases in the past have looked for equity and adequacy at the federal level through Equal Protection and Due Process claims, the main contention here is that there is a federal right to a basic level of education and instruction in civics, which is needed for capable citizenship. These claims are based on a number of federal constitutional provisions, including the Equal Protection Clause, Due Process Clause, Privileges and Immunities Clause, the Sixth and Seventh Amendments (guarantees of trials by a jury of one’s peers), and the Article IV Republican Guarantee Clause (which requires the federal government to ensure that states operate under democratic principles). These are all connected by the idea that every child needs a minimally adequate education to prepare them to operate as effective participants in our democracy. The complaint alleges that the state of Rhode Island has not provided students with: 

a meaningful opportunity to obtain an education adequate to prepare them to be capable voters and jurors, to exercise effectively their right of free speech and other constitutional rights, to participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system and to function productively as civic participants.  

As a community, our future depends on the education of upcoming generations. The quality and accessibility of education predicts our individual and collective paths in terms of democracy, equity, financial security, and growth. And yet, access to quality education in our nation varies significantly from community to community and state to state.  

Public education has been seen as the fodder for the mill of democracy. Today’s polarized political environment makes clear the need for an educated citizenry, an informed electorate that can sift through political claims and conflicting media reports to understand and participate in public discussion and decision making. As such, the Cook v. Raimondo case makes an incredibly important legal and value-based argument, and we will have to see how courts respond to these arguments as this case works its way up the legal ladder.   


Citation: Underwood, J. (2019). Under the law: Weighing responsibility for providing equitable and adequate education. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (8), 74-75. 

JULIE UNDERWOOD (Julie.Underwood@wisc.edu) is the Susan Engeleiter Professor of Education Law, Policy, and Practice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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