In 1971, John Serrano agreed for ideological reasons to be the lead plaintiff—essentially a stage dummy— for reform-minded lawyers who, in their minds, were furthering the equalizing-education legacy of Brown vs. Board of Education 1954 (Arthur Wise 1967; Peter Enrich 1995). The mastermind lawyers believed that the then-current system of funding public school districts with local property tax was unfair to students who lived in areas with low property values because their school districts received much less funding than students who lived in property-rich areas.
The California Supreme Court found in Serrano vs. Priest that reliance on local property taxes leads to significant disparities in educational opportunities, and thus violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Though Serrano was college-educated and his son went to a well-off public school in the area, his Hispanic name mislead some reporters and even scholars to assume that he was a poor Chicano in a property-poor area, struggling for educational equality for his children. It is important to note that this case was not the result of dissatisfaction with the status quo; rather, it was a staged lawsuit for agenda-minded activists.
Using spending-per-pupil to quantitatively measure educational opportunities, the California Supreme Court tried to attain equality by decreeing that property tax must be collected by the local government and then subsequently transferred to the state government, which would then reapportion the tax revenue to districts based on a “district power equalization formula.” In essence, property taxes were divorced from public school districts and henceforth, funding for districts no longer depended on the wealth of the geographical area in which they were located.
The California Supreme Court’s decision in the Serrano case continues to reverberate in California and the rest of the nation. Although the federal equivalent of Serrano, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973), decided in a 5-4 ruling that unequal funding for public school systems due to disparities in local property values does not violate the Equal Protection Clause, the dissent strongly encouraged states to consult their own constitutions. In fact, the majority opinion explicitly asked the states to deploy their own equal protection clauses and do whatever they wanted to school financing.
That’s exactly what the states did. Approximately 16 state courts immediately followed California’s precedent. In addition, a handful of states including New Mexico, Michigan, Ohio and Kansas revised their public school financing systems in anticipation for litigation. The redistribution of local property tax to equalize public education is a growing trend in America, and it appeals to one of the fundamental founding principles of our great country: equality. In the name of equality, wars have been fought, lives have been lost, and schools have been desegregated. The next step, naturally, is removing the socioeconomic dividers in our education system.
But reform has its costs, and for the public education system in America, it may be one that we can’t afford. After the Serrano ruling in California, numerous studies have analyzed how the centralization of funding has affected student achievement in the public school systems. The conclusions are ominous: school-finance centralization has hurt average educational quality, and as opponents claim, “dumbed down” education.
Take California, the birthplace of this trend, for example. In 1995, 24 years after the reform took place, California’s spending per pupil fell below the trend-line of growth in America. The study (Silva and Sonstelie 1995) contributed half of the drop to increasing enrollment in the public school system, and the other half to the centralization of school-finance. And, utilizing the terminology of the California Supreme Court, one can say that the reapportionment of local property tax directly lowered the educational opportunities for those students involved.
The reformers had hoped that equalization would raise the tail without bringing down the top, but studies have shown otherwise. For example, centralization appears to have a large, statistically significant, negative impact on average SAT scores (Husted and Kenny 200). The reasons for these achievement reductions are not very clear, but numerous conceivable theories have emerged.
One is that competition has diminished between school districts because of centralization, as there is less incentive for schools to attain high achievement in order to attract wealthy residents who expect to receive superior schooling in exchange for paying high local property tax.
Second, lower-income students do not always live in property-poor areas, and thus the benefits of equalizing school finance have not helped them in any significant way. Third, many wealthy parents, knowing that their tax money will not go toward their children’s public schooling, decided to send their kids to private schools, to get the full bang for the buck spent on education.
While equalizing public education sounds phenomenal in theory and laudable in practice, it is impractical in reality. It’s a difficult conundrum: should equality or high educational achievement prevail? One must sacrifice one to uphold the other, and there is little room for compromise. However, with the U.S. falling behind the world in achievement tests and globalization transforming our world into an increasingly competitive platform, how can America succeed?
Investing in education for our future is a must, and if that investment isn’t fully utilized in the most effective ways, we may fall farther behind, and not only in terms of education. If there comes a day when our education fails, our economy crumbles, and our strength diminishes, who then will be the champion of equality?