Spending on public schools nationwide has skyrocketed to $536 billion as of the 2004 school year, or more than $10,000 per pupil. That’s more than double per pupil what we spent three decades ago, adjusted for inflation–and more than we currently spend on national defense ($494 billion as of 2005). But the argument behind lawsuits in 45 states is that we don’t spend nearly enough on schools. Spending is so low, these litigants claim, that it is in violation of state constitutional provisions requiring an “adequate” education. And in almost half the states, the courts have agreed.
Arkansas is one such state, and its “adequacy” problem neatly illustrates the way courts have driven spending up and evidence out. In 2001 the state Supreme Court declared the amount of money spent at that time–more than $7,000 per pupil–in violation of the state constitutional requirement to provide a “general, suitable and efficient” system of public education. Like courts in other states, Arkansas’s court ordered that outside consultants be hired to determine how much extra funding would be required for an adequate education.
A firm led by two education professors, Lawrence Picus and Allan Odden, was paid $350,000 to put a price tag on what would be considered adequate. In September 2003 Messrs. Picus and Odden completed their report, concluding that Arkansas needed to add $847.3 million to existing school budgets. They also recommended policy changes, but the only thing that really mattered, at least as far as the court was concerned, was the bottom line–bringing the total to $4 billion, or $9,000 per pupil.