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Published March 2015 | public
Journal Article

The Impact of State Supreme Court Decisions on Public School Finance


Beginning with Serrano v. Priest in 1971, equity-based decisions issued by state supreme courts led to a decrease in cross-district inequality in per pupil expenditures. In subsequent years, more state supreme courts overturned existing systems of public school finance for failing to provide adequate education to students living in poor school districts. Adequacy-based decisions have not produced measurable changes in cross-district inequality in expenditures, but have led to higher overall levels of funding for public education. The nationwide increase in per pupil expenditures over the past several decades is, however, largely the product of growth in personal incomes and a decline in the relative size of the cohort of school-age children, and not of court-ordered finance reforms. In California, after Serrano and the most far-reaching equalization reforms implemented anywhere in the country, the association between the wealth of a school district and educational quality remains strong and persistent. If one's concern is the quality of education that students receive and not the amount of money spent on them, the victories that reformers have won in the courts have been hollow victories.

Additional Information

© 2014 The Author. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Yale University. Advance Access published February 17, 2014. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in Seattle, Washington. We would like to thank Mike Alvarez, David Grether, Philip Hoffman, Jonathan Katz, Terry Moe, Peter Ordeshook, Douglas Reed, Michiko Ueda, Sara Elizabeth Dahill-Brown, Michael Hartney, Ryane McAuliffe Straus, Christina Wolbrecht, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions. We would also like to thank Alicia Fernandez and Matthew Kiewiet for research assistance.

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