Reform and Retrenchment

The Politics of California School Finance Reform

by Richard F. Elmore, Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin


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Court-ordered reform is different in character from legislative initiatives. Reform generated by popular will or legislative action usually represents a majoritarian outcome and positive plan of action. Court-initiated reform often flows from an operative prohibition issued in response to petition from the politically disenfranchised. The school finance reform movement did not stem from an overwhelming public demand; it was a confederation of lawyers, school finance experts, and foundation officers, aided by the Office of Education and the National Institute of Education. Reformers hoped that judicial intervention could disengage school finance from ideology and politics and force it onto the ground of principle. California legislators formed a surprisingly efficient coalition and had state surplus funds, but confusion over the court's intent made accommodation impossible. Fiscal retrenchment has now created a new environment in which equity is more difficult to define and compliance more difficult to achieve.

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