RSFN Special Series:
Financing Rural Schools: Characteristics of Strong Rural School Finance Systems

Last Updated: June 25, 2010

A Rural School Funding News Special Series

This article appeared in the June 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

In this series, Rural School Funding News is reviewing general principles of school finance and sharing information about school funding systems that support rural schools and their unique characteristics and needs. While there are no easy answers to questions about how to fund schools, especially in this economic climate, we hope that these articles will provide you promising practices, ideas for advocacy, and guidelines that are easily transferable in your analysis and work on your own school finance systems. If you are new to the series, you can review a brief introduction to the subject and discussion of Characteristic 1: A Strong Foundation Formula, here.

Characteristic 2: Effective Use of the Judicial System

Knowing about, participating in, or reviving the memory of school finance litigation in your state may serve to strengthen your state’s finance system. State constitutions have quality standards that guarantee education to all children. Courts may give very specific orders to legislatures about what needs to be done, including setting deadlines, developing reform plans or timetables, or ordering costing-out studies. But, ultimately the question of how schools are funded is resolved politically. With or without specific court directives, rural advocates need to be prepared to work in the legislature. States where finance systems are most attuned to the financial needs of rural districts are typically those where both legislative and judicial strategies have been used.

The majority of states — 45 — have had one or more school finance lawsuits. Outcomes are mixed, although plaintiffs challenging funding systems have won more often than states defending those systems.

Many, in fact a majority, of these efforts have been spurred by rural citizens who initiated litigation to solve the problems of unequal and inadequate educational opportunities in rural areas. Some of the most egregious examples of underfunded, crumbling schools are in rural areas, which has leant a moral imperative to claims by rural people seeking better schools. In many cases, rural plaintiffs have been forced to use the courts for redress because of their lack of political power within their states.

Rural people have provided much of the leadership in finance litigation, pushing for change through years of legal wrangling, high legal costs, public misunderstanding, and legislative delay. In the wake of favorable legal decisions, they have worked to influence public opinion and policymaking to obtain adequate remedies for rural schools.

How can rural advocates work in and through legal action to strengthen their school finance system?

1.     Participate. If there is an active lawsuit in the state, or if one is being planned, investigate what claims are to be made, and if appropriate, encourage your district to support the lawsuit as one of the plaintiffs. If you are a member of a community group, there may be an opportunity to serve as an amicus, or friend of the court, by filing a brief with rural-specific information.

2.     Agitate. Use a positive decision — or even any positive language found in an unfavorable decision — as a part of a community education strategy. Legal documents, called pleadings, are usually a public record and can be used as models for advocacy and to publicize and specifically describe needs of rural schools that are not being met.

3.     Legislate. Support legislation that can implement the original goals of the lawsuit for rural schools. Often the groups that bring a finance lawsuit are different from those who move the remedy forward once a decision is rendered by the courts. It may take years or even decades of work to obtain real remedies that support and protect rural schools.

Rural school advocates can avail themselves of court authority to push for changes in their school finance system, and the Rural School Finance Center (REFC) at the Rural Trust can provide legal analysis and technical support on finance litigation strategies for our partners in the field.

The field of finance litigation has significantly evolved since the first school finance suits were brought in the 1970s, and REFC monitors and participates in national conversations in the legal community about new approaches to the challenge of financing schools.

The outcomes of school finance litigation are very consequential for rural schools and in most states they have been something of a mixed blessing. It is one thing to win in court, but a very different thing to achieve a timely and positive remedy. For these reasons it is important to accompany a legal strategy with long-term policy and public relations strategies.

As school finance advocacy moves through community meeting room and school boards and into courtrooms and the legislative arena, the Rural School and Community Trust is partnering with rural leaders to impact finance policy issues affecting their schools and communities.

Read more:

This investigation of state school finance policies and outcomes prepared by the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center provides state-specific information about some of the finance factors described in the first installment of this series, as well as other finance indicators that will be discussed in future segments:

This new report from pre[k]now and The Education Law Center describes school finance mechanisms that can be used to fully fund preschool in states:

Read more from the June 2010 Rural Policy Matters.