Sunday, February 7, 2010

Let's Look at the Skeen Case to understand Minnesota's Constitutional Education Clause

This is the fourth in a series of blog-posts exploring whether Minnesota's current financial system complies with the our State Constitutional requirements that the state create a general and uniform system of public education that is thorough and efficient. If you have read my prior posts, you will know that I've not been focusing on the argument that the State must increase funding by an amount that is pre-determined by judges of the Supreme Court. I've been arguing rather that the State legislature has a duty under the Constitution to establish a general and uniform level of education that can be delivered effectively throughout Minnesota. I assert that the legislature is primarily accountable to the people through the democratic process to determine that level of education, but that once the legislature establishes that level, it must then provide a thorough and efficient delivery system, properly funded--one that delivers what the legislature has decided is necessary.

My argument has been that the legislature has chosen a mandatory level of delivery and then established a system of funding and governance that is not uniform, not thorough and not efficient, but rather represents a politically convenient evasion of the constitutional responsibility. In the first post, I began a discussion of some of the various theories that have been considered in other states to challenge dysfunctional delivery systems. (Click here for First Post). In the second post, I began a discussion of the state-requirements that existed back in the 1980's when the landmark case Skeen v. State was decided. This is important, because we need to recognize that the state requires a radically different product from local districts today than it did in the 1980's and before. (Click Here for Second Post.)

I said that the state requirement was basically that the district offer opportunities to students (the must offer requirement) and that students must take a certain number of those courses (the must-take requirement). I said that there was no requirement that all students succeed in these courses or that they graduate to any level of state established minimum proficiency. In the third post I discussed the the radical change in the mandates established by the legislature over the last two decades showing that the legislature has created a vast array of minimum proficiency requirements which I call the "must-succeed" requirement such that students who come to school with profound disadvantages must nonetheless be educated to levels of proficiency, by state mandate. (Click here for Third Post)

Now I want to take you back to 1988, when the state requirements were "must offer," and "must take," so that you can begin to understand the holding of the Supreme Court in the key Minnesota education case Skeen v. State. Prior to Skeen, the Supreme Court had held that different governance structures might be used in different districts of the State without violating the Constitution. But the Court had repeatedly held that local option or local differences cannot impair what was the requirement of a uniform state system of education. As the Court stated in 1933:
Recognizing the existence of a limited local interest in the matter of education, this court so frequently has affirmed the doctrine that the maintenance of the public schools is a matter of state and not of local concern that it is unnecessary further to review the authorities at this date.


While it is proper to create local boards and local school districts, the Supreme Court has held, it is not proper to vest the responsibility to deliver public education in a school district or school board, but to deprive that board of the power to raise the funds needed to deliver public education. The Court has stated:

There can be no question of the power of the state to delegate the duty to provide education to a municipal body. This power of the Legislature is not exhausted by exercise. To insure ‘a thorough and efficient system’ of education (cf. State ex rel. Smith v. City of St. Paul, 128 Minn. 82, 91, 150 N. W. 389), the body to which that duty has been designated should be provided with the necessary funds or power to raise funds adequate for the proper performance of that duty. To place the duty to provide education in one board and power in another which has no such duty to prevent its performance runs contrary to the policy of our state with regard to education as expressed in the decisions of this court.


A system is not thorough and efficient when the legislature delegates the responsibility to deliver public education, but deprives that board of both the state funds necessary to deliver the required education and the the power to raise funds locally to achieve that purpose. Whenever I say that, I must keep reminding readers that I am not saying that the Constitution requires that local boards be delegated unlimited money or unlimited taxation power. The revenues provided, or the taxation authority provided, must be sufficient to fund the legislative purpose, given the reality of the powers provided local boards to manage their costs.

Now that brings us to our first close look at the Skeen decision. In 1988, 52 school districts and ten parents brought suit against the State of Minnesota, State Board of Education, and the Commissioner of Education claiming that certain components of the Minnesota education finance system were unconstitutional under the Education Clause of the Minnesota Constitution. Minn. Const. art. XIII, § 1 (“Education Clause”). The primary characteristic of these districts was that they had lower property tax bases than most other school districts. That meant that when they tried to raise funds to build new schools, or when they tried to raise additional funds to improve their programs with what were called, in those days, "excess levies", through a referendum election, they felt that they were at a distinct financial advantage. Now twenty-four so-called "high tax base" school districts intervened in the case--that is they jumped into the litigation voluntarily to protect their own interests.

The majority of the plaintiff districts belonged to the Association of Stable and Growing School Districts (ASGSD). These districts had been experiencing a higher than average enrollment increase, with their enrollment rising by 22% between the 1973-74 and 1987-88 school years. Meanwhile, state-wide enrollment declined by 12% over the same time period. Although the resident income and home values in plaintiff districts were somewhat above the state average, their school districts have property tax base per pupil unit (ppu) below the state average. For many, this was because they lacked strong commercial and industrial tax bases.

Although it is common to talk about Skeen versus State as an education case, actually it was an equality of taxation case, and fundamentally different rules apply to equality of taxation as compared to the right to equal delivery of state mandated educational programs In Skeen, the Districts were not contending that their students were receiving an unequal education to the students of other school districts. In fact, they told District Judge Meyer in Wright County who heard the case that they all offered an educational program that complied with Minnesota's state requirements. Their issue was that they felt placed at a financial disadvantage when they went out to their voters to raise additional funds to support special programs or to construct new schools. The Supreme Court noted that the Skeen case was quite unusual in this regard.

Usually, citizens sue the state about educational opportunity when they believe that their school district is unable to provide the education mandated by the State because funding is inadequate, or because the provision of those educational programs is fundamentally unequal in some way. But in Skeen, the districts who were asking for relief, were in many respects educationally better off than some of the districts that the plaintiffs felt were advantaged. As the Supreme Court explained
"Unlike challenges to state financing of education in other states, which frequently have been initiated by property-poor inner-city districts, this case does not involve the three largest metropolitan school districts, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth Although these districts contain the majority of AFDC and minority population, they also have the highest property tax base because the state places a higher property tax rate on commercial entities. In addition, this case is somewhat atypical because the small, rural districts also are not included. These rural districts, which represent less than 12% of the state's pupil population, comprise over half of the total number of school districts.
In the early federal equal protection cases, the plaintiffs came from districts suffering from profound poverty with grossly inequitable facilities and programs. In other funding equity cases, the plaintiffs came from districts with high rates of poverty, low rates of educational success, that were seeking adequate resources so that their students could have a fair shot at a high quality education, consistent with state minimum standards. But in Skeen, the plaintiff districts actually were succeeding quite well with the resources they had, based on the existing state mandates. They just wanted a finance system that they believed would be fairer to their taxpayers. The issue was not education--it was fairness in funding.

Now, this argument, that a levy in one district must raise the same amount of money per mil of taxation must raise the same school revenues as a mill in another was destined to fail. The school taxes in Sartell are quite different from the school taxes in St. Cloud (Sartell being much higher). The rate of taxation in Stearns County is different from Hennipen, Todd, and Crow Wing counties. Inequality of taxation in one area or another may be wise, but its not unconstitutional. To win their case, they needed to show much more, and this, in the Supreme Court's opinion, they failed to do.

I'll address the Supreme Court's reasoning in Skeen in my next post. But if you are following these posts, remember, the central problem that the legislature has not faced is the consequences of the decision to mandate a "must-succeed" educational system, instead of a must offer system that prevailed when Skeen was decided. In the must offer system, it was perfectly proper to expend the same amount of resources on all students. We weren't providing uniform proficiency; we were providing equal access to teaching resources and and an equal number of hours in school. The system that existed then tolerated, indeed presumed, that not all students would reach the same level of proficiency. Everyone got a diploma, but not everyone was prepared to be proficient to a given state standard.

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