States are facing lawsuits as parents complain of unsound schooling in poorer districts, reports Tim Cornwell.
Courts are being asked to enforce a fair standard of schooling across rich and poor districts. In New York and Florida major lawsuits claim that failing schools in poor areas are undermining the principle of a free state education.
Some of the biggest names in United States education are among scores of witnesses in a case set for later this spring that promises to put the New York school system on trial. Schools in the city are failing to provide a "sound basic education" as laid down in the state's constitution, it is claimed.
In Florida, a suit filed this month on behalf of 19 children and their families claims that tens of thousands of pupils in urban and rural schools across the state have been denied an adequate education.
Florida's constitution mandates that all children residing in the state be provided with a "high quality system" of free public schools. The lawsuit, backed by minority rights and community groups, cites schools where as many as three-quarters of children, often from poor and minority homes, fall short of minimum scores in literacy and maths.
US courts have often stepped into school politics in the area of racial inequality. The "adequacy" law suits are a new twist, attacking the wide disparities in funding and achievement between neighbourhoods as unconstitutional rather than racist.
The New York case cites the fact that wealthy suburban school districts, relying on local property taxes, spend twice as much as New York City's $8,200 (pound;5,200) per pupil per year on average.
Urban areas have the highest percentage of non-native English speakers and learning-disabled children from the poorest backgrounds but have the oldest buildings, the largest classes, and the largest percentage of trainee teachers, it is alleged. These conditions are blamed for results showing only 40 per cent of New York City schoolchildren pass basic maths, compared with 60 per cent across the state.
The New York case is being led by the Campaign for Fiscal Equality, which will call top US experts in education and job preparation to argue that children are simply not getting the education they are owed under the law.
"The bottom line is we have a system where the kids with the greatest needs get the least resources," said Michael Rebell, a Campaign attorney. "We are looking to establish a fair funding level for sound basic education."
The state has spent millions of dollars defending the case, and seems likely to argue that socio-economic rather than classroom standards and funding account for the wide differences in results.