Indiana Avoids Education Finance Litigation Mess

June 2, 2009

Indiana will avoid an education finance litigation mess inflicted on 27 other states after the decision in Bonner v. Indiana handed down this morning by the Indiana Supreme Court.

Article 8, Section 1 of Indiana’s Constitution establishes a statewide school system and requires that it be “general and uniform,” with the aspirational goal of encouraging “moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement.” Plaintiffs sought to turn this flowery provision into a mechanism for judicial micromanagement of Indiana’s education system.

Echoing the Tax Foundation’s amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the case, the Court concluded that setting precise educational goals to be attained is the responsibility of the legislature and the people at large, not the courts.

The Court’s 4 to 1 opinion, authored by Justice Brent E. Dickson, reads, “Although recognizing the Indiana Constitution directs the General Assembly to establish a general and uniform system of public schools, we hold that it does not mandate any judicially enforceable standard of quality, and to the extent that an individual student has a right, entitlement, or privilege to pursue public education, this derives from the enactments of the General Assembly, not from the Indiana Constitution.”

Justice Theodore R. Boehm, concurring separately, noted: “I see no reasonable prospect of a judicial remedy that would be effective and properly balance the many considerations involved in redesigning the state’s educational system.”

In the Tax Foundation’s brief and an accompanying report (both available at http://www.taxfoundation.org/legacy/show/23506.html), we noted that because courts work case-by-case while legislatures can obtain evidence from interested stakeholders and consider political and economic factors, judicial mandates will necessarily remain vague and elusive. Despite their drawbacks, legislatures provide better comprehensiveness and accountability, and have the best resources to address perceived inadequacies in educational quality.

The Tax Foundation’s comprehensive report on the topic, “Appropriation by Litigation: Estimating the Cost of Judicial Mandates,” Tax Foundation Background Paper No. 55, July 2007, available at http://tinyurl.com/tfedfin, outlines the serious problems encountered by courts as they embark on micromanaging education policy and mandating funding levels. Since 1977, lawmakers have authorized an additional $34 billion in annual spending or taxes to comply with court mandates.

Court mandates tend to produce one-time high-profile expenditures, rather than long-term comprehensive solutions. Although spikes in capital funding may occur in the short-term, long-term trends indicate stagnation in recurring spending. The explanation may lie in the fact that money is fungible, and an order mandating spending in one education-related area may simply shift resources from others.

Bonner v. Daniels was the latest instance of a national campaign to involve the courts in determining appropriate levels of state spending on education. The unstated assumption used to justify these efforts is that increased education spending leads to increases in education quality. Although judicial mandates often lead to funding increases, they often do not lead to improvements in student performance, prompting more lawsuits.

Indiana has now been spared this endless cycle of resource-draining litigation.

Read the Tax Foundation’s report from the oral argument in Bonner v. Indiana. Read the amicus brief or the Tax Foundation Fiscal Fact explaining this brief. Read more amicus briefs submitted by the Tax Foundation.


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