Rural Districts Key Plaintiffs in Recent School Finance Lawsuits

Last Updated: November 24, 2014

This article appeared in the November 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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Plaintiffs have filed lawsuits in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and New Jersey charging their states with failing to provide constitutionally required funding for schools. Rural districts are among the plaintiffs in all four states.

We take a look at each of the lawsuits and the particular rural funding issues at stake. Please note that related “Read More” links are provided at the end of each section.

Colorado should enforce its voter-approved school funding law

A lawsuit filed in June in Colorado may proceed, according to a state District Court ruling issued earlier this month.

Dwyer was filed by the Colorado Rural School Alliance representing 147 rural school districts, the Colorado PTA, four sets of parents including lead plaintiff Lindi Dwyer, and several other school districts. The lawsuit asks the court to enforce Amendment 23, which was passed by voters in 2000 after cuts to education funding.

The state had sought to have the suit dismissed.

Amendment 23 requires the state to gradually restore education funding to 1988 levels and to maintain funding during economic downturns. The legislature complied until 2010 when it began to cut funding, to the tune of nearly $1 billion each year, using a technique called the “negative factor.” Cuts have been especially hard on rural districts.

Dwyer plaintiffs are seeking enforcement of Amendment 23 and the elimination of the Negative Factor and similar measures.

Rural Trust Board member Kathleen Gebhardt is co-lead attorney in the lawsuit.

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Pennsylvania plaintiffs seek rational formula

Rural school districts are also involved in a lawsuit filed against the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Association for Small and Rural Schools, along with the Pennsylvania NAACP, six school districts, and a group of parents are charging the state has failed to meet its obligation to develop a funding system that meets constitutional requirements. Plaintiffs are represented by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania does not have a formal school funding mechanism. Plaintiffs charge that the state has developed academic standards and requirements but has not provided resources sufficient to meet the standards.

The lawsuit also alleges that students in property and income-poor districts are denied an adequate education while students in property and income-rich districts receive a high-quality education. The funding gap between high and low-spending districts is more than $15,000 per student annually.

A study presented by, an “independent, nonprofit news service serving thousands of supporters of the Philadelphia public schools,” finds a strong correlation between funding levels and racial/ethnic demographics of districts. Districts with more diverse student populations receive less-than-expected levels of funding, while less diverse districts with mostly white student populations receive more-than-expected funding.

In 1999, the state Supreme Court ruled that school funding matters were a legislative rather than judicial concern. The Court also ordered the state to develop academic standards and left the door open for possible future challenges.

In 2006 the Legislature told the state Board of Education to determine the per-pupil cost of educating a student to the state’s academic standards. That costing-out study determined a need for more than $4 billion in new funding and found that poorer districts had much greater needs than wealthier districts. In response, the state developed and began phasing in a funding formula in 2008. But in 2011, in Governor Tom Corbett’s administration, the state quit using the formula and cut $860 million in funding to schools, with the deepest per pupil cuts affecting the poorest districts.

Plaintiffs argue that state standards and the costing-out study form a rational basis for determining how much funding is needed.

Education funding was a significant issue in this month’s gubernatorial election in which Corbett was defeated by Tom Wolf.

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Mississippi districts sue for funding

At least 19 Mississippi school districts have filed suit against the state claiming they have not received all the money owed them under the Mississippi Adequate Educational Program (MAEP), the state’s funding formula. The districts, known as the MAEP Legal Group, are asking for $134 million, the amount that plaintiff districts have been underfunded since 2010.

MAEP has only been fully funded two times since it was passed in 1997.

Former Governor Ronnie Musgrove filed the lawsuit on behalf of the districts. Musgrove was governor when MAEP was passed. The suit also asks the court to order the legislature to fully fund MAEP in the future.

The lawsuit, however, is not without detractors, even among groups advocating for better school funding in Mississippi. The organization Better Schools, Better Jobs, which led a successful petition drive to place an amendment on the ballot to require the Legislature to fully fund the state’s share of the formula, has spoken out against the lawsuit. And the Parents Campaign, which advocates for MAEP funding and supports charter schools, has expressed concern that the legislature might dismantle MAEP in response to the lawsuit.

State Attorney General Jim Hood has announced that he will file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

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New Jersey rural districts sue

Sixteen rural New Jersey school districts have filed a lawsuit claiming they have been underfunded by $18 million since the state cut education funding in 2011.

The districts, known as “Bacon districts” and represented by the Education Law Center, say they are not able to provide students with art and music and are struggling to offer Common Core subjects. Many also say they are not able to offer preschool programs. The lawsuit asks that state aid be increased to comply with the School Funding Reform Act and that additional funding be provided where needed.

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Read more from the November 2014
Rural Policy Matters.