Educational Gerrymandering: Money, Motives, and Constitutional Rights
Derek W. Black
Public school funding plummeted following the Great Recession and failed to recover over the next decade, prompting strikes and protests across the nation. Courts have done almost nothing to stop the decline. While a majority of state supreme courts recognize a constitutional right to an adequate or equal education, they increasingly struggle to enforce the right. That right is now approaching a tipping point. Either it evolves, or risks becoming irrelevant.
In the past, courts have focused almost exclusively on the adequacy and equity of funding for at-risk students, demanding that states provide more resources. Courts have failed to ask the equally important question of why states refuse to provide the necessary resources. As a result, states have never stopped engaging in the behavior that leads to the funding failures in the first place.
This Article argues that states refuse to fully fund low-income students’ education because they have ulterior aims and biases—maintaining privilege for suburban schools, lowering taxes for wealthy individuals, and not “wasting” money on low-income kids. States go to extraordinary lengths to manipulate school funding formulas to achieve these ends. Thus, the various policies that produce inequality and inadequacy are not just benign state failures; they are intentional efforts to gerrymander educational opportunity. Understood this way, school funding manipulations violate federal equal protection and state constitutional rights to education. Reframing school funding failures as gerrymandering can both create a much-needed federal check on educational inequality and reinvigorate the enforcement of state constitutional rights to education.