Forty-six years ago a plaintiff named John Serrano sued the State of California, asserting that the capacity of school districts to raise money was grossly unequal, hence unconstitutional. The quality of education in property-poor districts was said to be diminished by the resulting disparities in spending per pupil. Students had a right to a more rational and fair distribution of money.
As in most litigation the claimants had to prove some real injury. The disparities in spending were colossal, ranging, at the extremes, from a few hundred dollars per pupil in property-poor districts, to several thousand in freakishly wealthy industrial centers and top-rank suburbs. The injury seemed self-evident.
But it wasn’t. By whichever measure of outcome – graduation, test scores, reputation – there was no pattern linking spending to actual quality. In addition, surprisingly, there was little or no evidence that children from poor families were systematically getting less spent on their schools. The lawyers for Serrano et al. could not credibly assert that money was the key to quality education or indeed, that it affected the success of schools in any way – except one. It was obviously true that the richer districts could buy more stuff. They could hire more teachers, administrators and superintendents, at higher salaries, build fancier buildings and secure the most up-to-date supplies, books and equipment. The trial judge decided this was injury enough. His judgment for the plaintiffs was affirmed by the California Supreme Court. As yet, however, 40 years later, no one has succeeded in establishing a clear link between spending per-pupil and the benefit for the child.
Nevertheless, spending has skyrocketed in succeeding generations across the nation for reasons political – principally the monopoly power of public-service unions. But the apparent disconnect between spending and quality of education remains. This reality has conflicting implications for the school choice movement. It reduces the political significance of the consistent discrimination in spending against today’s charter schools; we are not at all clear that it really affects outcome. On the other hand, it is plain to anyone who knows the facts that, whatever it is that does make a school successful, it can be had without exploding the cost. In short, if school choice supporters are willing to accept and even exploit politically the cheaper regimes now in place, they have a more powerful case.