As schools reopen this week from the summer break, many begin the new year under a cloud: Increasing numbers of states face lawsuits over their failure to close spending gaps between rich and poor school districts or their failure to give adequate aid to all schools.
Twenty-three states are embroiled in suits, most filed since 1990, over the way they finance school districts. Three others -- New York, New Hampshire and California -- could face lawsuits again if plaintiffs make good on threats to appeal or re-file cases that were decided this year.
By comparison, 11 states faced such suits five years ago, with most now settled.
"Whatever comes out from these rounds of court cases, people should be thinking about long-term solutions and not short-term solutions," said Robert Berne, the assistant dean of the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, who has testified in several cases.
"Giving cash infusions without anticipating inflation, growth or the cost of school reform may win you the short-term battle, but you don't win the war," he said.
Chris Pipho, an analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver education research and policy organization, said: "School finance is back on the front burner. Finance issues had taken a back seat to education reform in the 1980s, but the issues of equity and adequacy are too big to ignore."
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has said the city will sue the state over school funding, a move that angered some state legislators but heartened many education advocates who for years have argued that city schools are underfunded.
Lawyers with the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, which is helping to research the case, said a suit against Maryland would likely be precedent-setting because it would focus squarely on whether schools in Baltimore and other poor jurisdictions are funded well enough to provide a "thorough and efficient" education as required in the state constitution.
Several other education lawsuits filed against states around the country have focused on a combination of funding-equity issues and the constitutional question of adequacy, Ms. Pipho said.
In 1983, a city-led suit that focused on spending disparities between the city and wealthy counties in Maryland failed.
The growing number of lawsuits reflects several problems, not the least of which is the lingering effects of the recession.
For much of the 1980s, when resources were more plentiful, many states addressed spending disparities among schools by giving more money to poorer school districts. But the recession has hobbled those efforts.
Outdated ways of financing school districts have compounded the problem. Most school budgets still come primarily from local property taxes, which generate more money for districts in well-off areas and create a disparity in poorer areas.
And most school finance formulas do not take into account the mounting expenses caused by an increasing number of students who need special academic and social assistance.
Some states, however, have started to search for remedies. In Massachusetts, for example, a business group last year proposed a plan, embraced by state legislators, that reflects what many school finance experts have proposed: Let education improvements and needs dictate the amount states allocate to schools.
Although the notion seems simple, basing school financing on educational needs would be difficult for two reasons. First, it requires states to abandon the decades-old approach of basing their school aid primarily on the number of students per district. And second, it is always debatable which education improvements and needs deserve financing.