Esteemed reader and commenter Troy Jones insists that the South Dakota Supreme Court's affirmation last week of the lower court's rejection of the school funding lawsuit represents not just a victory for the state but a boomerang-Waterloo for the whiny school districts that dared drag the state to court:
Overall, I think the school boards lost more than they even imagined [Troy Jones, comment, 2011.09.03].
As I read this again ruling after [Saturday] conversation with a lawyer, the school boards have gone so backwards (read the factors the court mentions that might have more impact on education) as the courts are as likely to demand replacement of board members, administration or teachers as they are to force more taxes [Troy Jones, comment, 2011.09.05].
The Court showed last week it's darned unlikely to order the Legislature to raise taxes, so the gentlest reading I can give to Mr. Jones's hopeful equation is that we are just as unlikely to see a judicial override of local school board elections or hiring decisions.
But I don't think Mr. Jones is being so subtle. I hear hopefulness, perhaps jubilation in Mr. Jones's responses. The suing schools were hoping for judicial activism; now Mr. Jones, who I suspect generally dislikes judicial activism, appears to be rooting for the schools to get a big dollop of bitter judicial activism plopped on top of the judicially-certified generous slice of pie served up by the Legislature. It's not enough for Mr. Jones that the schools lost their lawsuit and appeal; now he wants the courts to punish the schools for their petulance.
I've read the full ruling, as well as Chief Justice Gilbertson's concurring opinion (starting on page 41/paragraph 72 of the ruling). I find none of the grounds Mr. Jones finds to believe that the Court's ruling represents a setback for the schools. At worst, the schools are where they were before the suit. Arguably, they have a little stronger legal ground for future challenges of public policy.
Mr. Jones and his Saturday lawyer friend suggest the court identifies other factors more significant than funding that might open local districts to greater legal challenge. However, the major confounding factors cited in Justice Meierhenry's main opinion are socioeconomic:
One expert found no correlation betweeen a district's total expenditures and its test scores, even after adjusting for socioeconomic circumstances affecting students such as poverty, English language learner status, and ethnicity [Davis et al. v. State of South Dakota, Department of Education, et al., 2011 SD 51, ¶63, filed 2011.08.31].
Nowhere does Justice Meierhenry direct future litigants to turn their lawsuit fire on local school boards and administrators. Chief Justice Gilbertson sort of goes there in his concurrence, nitpicking at various administrative decisions made by the plaintiffs' six focus districts (Faith, Doland, Florence, Bon Homme, Willow Lake, and Rapid City). But he concludes that those schools are all offering constitutionally adequate education. Even if Chief Justice Gilbertson is hinting that he would like to order Willow Lake to max out its levy or consolidate the superintendent's secretary with the business manager, the main ruling's finding that funding doesn't correlate with academic results takes away the justification for doing so. The Court's reasoning gives it no more ground for meddling in local administrative decisions than for meddling in the Legislature's rushed budget deliberations.
If this ruling at all changes where schools stand in their fight for more funding from the Legislature, it puts them in a slightly better position by affirming all children's right to a free, adequate, and quality public education (are you paying attention, Charlii Gilson?). Unfortunately, the Court makes proving that a school isn't receiving the resources necessary to secure that right nigh impossible. Given the Court's acceptance of Faith as a model of constitutionally sufficient educational resources, with its condemned 1919 school building and demoralized kids running between crowded modular classrooms in winter, triggering court intervention in school funding and operations will probably require a district to actually run out of money to pay teachers and the electric company. But this ruling at least affirms that school districts have that foothold in claiming they are entitled to some basic level of funding.
Mr. Jones would like the schools to just be quiet and do their jobs. I get the feeling that Mr. Jones would like to see the schools punished for their effort to use the courts to overrule the Legislature's stingy funding of K-12 education. Our Supreme Court's ruling in Davis v. South Dakota does not lay the grounds for such punishment.