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Courting Failure, Ed. Eric A. Hanushek, Education Next, 2006, 367 pp., $25.00

This book examines "how school finance lawsuits exploit judges' good intentions and harm our children." During the past three decades, plaintiffs in 45 states - including schools, school boards, districts and teachers unions - have sued their state governments over school finance, claiming that current funding levels for education are unconstitutionally low. When successful, these suits allow plaintiffs to circumvent the normal democratic process and the legislature's constitutional role in setting the state budget and appropriating money for the schools. Instead, judges directly order increased appropriations for public schools.

Since states' constitutional language is vague about education, these lawsuits ask judges to ascribe a dollar figure to phrases such as "suitable education" or "a system of free common schools." In New York, judges ordered the spending of $20,000 per student for New York City schools before a non-activist judge finally returned the whole question to the legislature. A Wyoming court interpreted the phrases "complete and uniform" and "thorough and efficient" to require a state education system that would be "visionary and unsurpassed," "the best" available anywhere.

Courting Failure is a collection of articles by different authors who use meticulous logic and solid research to expose the problems inherent in court-mandated funding increases. Two analysts look at high-poverty, high-performance schools and high-spending, low-performing ones. Another examines efficiency in education by comparing public and private schools. Each of these chapters provides valuable insight into the factors that influence educational success or failure.

The chapter "How Can Anyone Say What's Adequate If Nobody Knows How Money Is Spent Now?" highlights a strange aspect of the cases. Plaintiffs have diverted judges' attention away from the question of schools' current levels of efficiency and overall spending. Courts do not, and probably cannot, address the significant issue of how districts spend money, the money they already have, or the money they hope to win by lawsuits.

The schools are full of problems that money alone can't fix. Plaintiffs often argue against straw men, as if opponents of adequacy cases don't want the schools to receive adequate funds. Courting Failure persuasively argues that legislators applying the normal appropriations process are much more qualified to determine adequacy than the judicial branch applying information from funding lawsuits.

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