Monday, April 25, 2005

Courts and schools

The state Supreme Courts have played a key role in increasing funds for public education over the last few decades. But with new political pressure to rein in "judicial activism", three red-state courts will have to make very difficult decisions very soon.

First, Kansas has approved $127 million in new funds for schools. The Republican legislature insists it's enough; Democratic Governor insists it's not.

In Montana, rising Democratic star Governor Schweitzer led a Democratic legislature to increase school funding by $32 million, the largest increase in over 10 years. The courts had ruled that the school finance system itself was unconstitutional, though, so the work there is by no means done. There will be a special session in the fall.

And in Texas, where I have a front row seat to the disturbing proceedings, the school finance plan will be hammered out in conference committee sometime in the coming week. There is an eminent possibility that no compromise will be reached, which would force a special session. The Texas Supreme Court will hear the school finance case in early July.

In this climate of a harsh conservative attack on the courts, it would be highly unlikely that any court would mandate a dollar amount or a specific school finance program. They realize that those tasks are best left to the elected legislatures. (For example, Justice DeGrasse of New York overreached when he ruled last year that New York City schools must receive $30 billion new dollars. I agree with him in principle, but clearly, courts should not be mandating details.)

However, the Courts can -- and should -- articulate broad principles that will lead legislatures towards constitutional systems. I don't envy them in trying to walk that tightrope, though.

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