Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Nixon Years: School Funding - Serrano v Priest
A decade after the Civil Rights Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and two decades after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the meaning of the phrase equal educational opportunity still was not entirely clear. What was clear, however, was the rapidly growing cost of public schools throughout the nation. Despite the infusion of federal aid that had followed the Education Amendments of 1974, local districts struggled to find the resources needed to meet the demand for specialized educational services. The effects of stagflation (that is, high inflation combined with high unemployment) and a prolonged recession in the early 1970s had made schools' financial problems ever-more urgent. It was in this context that, in 1971, a series of lawsuits began to address the issue of school funding. The first to attract attention was Serrano v. Priest, in which the state supreme court in California ruled that the state formula for distributing school aid unconstitutionally discriminated against students in low-income districts.
In Serrano v. Priest, the court held that existing state financial support for schools was "inadequate" to meet the educational needs of all children. In the words of the state supreme court, "We have determined that this funding scheme invidiously discriminates against the poor because it makes the quality of a child's [public] education a function of the wealth of his parents and his neighbors. Recognizing, as we must, that the right to an education in our public schools is a fundamental interest which cannot be conditioned on [individual] wealth, we can discern no compelling state purpose necessitating the present method of financing. We have concluded, therefore, that such a system cannot withstand constitutional challenge and must fall before the equal protection clause." This ruling was a landmark in school-finance litigation, and it struck fear into the hearts of school officials in other states, who wondered how they might have to alter their own state-aid formulas to meet the (apparent) constitutional standard of locally equivalent financial resources as a "fundamental right."