Michael Rebell

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The Suburban Promise of Brown

Michael Rebell

Michael rebellMichael A. Rebell is an experienced litigator, administrator, researcher, and scholar in the field of education law.He is the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity and Professor of Law and Educational Practice at Teachers College, Columbia University. The Campaign seeks to promote equity and excellence in education and to overcome the gap in educational access and achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged students throughout the United States.

Previously, Mr. Rebell was the co-founder, executive director and counsel for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. In CFE v. State of New York, the Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court, declared that all children are entitled under the state Constitution to the “opportunity for a sound basic education,” and it ordered the State of New York to reform its education finance system to meet these constitutional requirements. Currently, he is counsel for plaintiffs in NYSER v. State of New York, a statewide follow up to the CFE case that seeks full funding, in accordance with the CFE decree,  and permanent structures to ensure that the constitutional right to the opportunity for a sound basic education is fully implemented for all students throughout New York State Mr. Rebell has also litigated numerous major class action lawsuits, including Jose P. v. Mills, which involved a plaintiff class of 160,000 students with disabilities. He also served as a court-appointed special master in the Boston special education case, Allen v. Parks.

Mr. Rebell is the author or co-author of five books, and dozens of articles on issues of law and education.  Among his most recent works are Courts and Kids: Pursuing Educational Equity Through the State Courts (U. Chicago Press, 2009); Moving Every Child Ahead: From NCLB Hype to Meaningful Educational Opportunity (Teachers College Press, 2008) (with Jessica R. Wolff), The Right to Comprehensive Educational Opportunity, 47 Harvard Civil Rts-Civil Lib. L. Rev. 49 (2012), and Safeguarding the Right to a Sound Basic Education in Times of Fiscal Constraint, 75 Alb. L. Rev. 1855 (2012). He was a member of the National Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education and a member of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New New York Education Reform Commission.

In addition to his research and litigation activities, Mr. Rebell is a frequent lecturer and consultant on education law. He is also currently adjunct Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and previously was a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, and for many years, a Visiting Lecturer at the Yale Law School.  Mr. Rebell is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School.

Speaker Abstract

School Funding: Inequities That Are Out of Control  
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court in Rodriguez v. San Antonio School District refused to rectify the gross inequities in the funding of local school districts in Texas.  The Court justified its failure to act by emphasizing the importance of “local control” of school district funding.  

Over the past four decades, state courts throughout the country have wrestled with the inequities in school finance that the federal courts had abandoned. These cases have caused some lessening of the inequities in equities in school funding, but gross disparities still exist. For example, on Long Island, in 2011-2012, the Great Neck school district, with an 8 % black and Latino student population and a 10% FRPL poverty rate spent $28,530 on average for each student, while nearby Elmont, with a 75% black and Latino student population and a 48% FRPL poverty rate spent $ 18,876.              

Inequities in school funding persist because a large proportion of school funding comes from local property taxes; so long as property values in affluent districts vastly exceed property values in poorer districts, such inequities will continue. State aid, which tends to be more equalizing, does ameliorate this system, but the political reality is that affluent districts tend to have more influence in the legislature and need-based legislative reforms, therefore, are limited.  

During economic downturns, low wealth districts tend to suffer disproportionately. Districts that are receiving substantial ( even though inadequate) amounts of needs-based state aid suffer huge budget cuts, while neighboring affluent districts that depend more on their property tax base are relatively unscathed. For example, after New York State  substantially reduced state aid to education in 2010,  22% of low wealth districts on Long Island had to cut back on high school athletics and 21% had to cut high School Advanced Placement courses, while none of the high wealth districts reduced programs in these areas.  

Under these circumstances, the Supreme Court’s touting of the merits of local control has a hollow ring. In recent decades, the imposition of state standards and test-based accountability has substantially reduced the governing authority of all local school boards. The underfunded districts retain little, if any, actual discretion to make educational policy decisions since they are hard pressed to meet even minimal state mandates. This system also presents a major impediment to school district consolidation: aside from the obvious racial factors involved, high wealth districts are reluctant to consider merging with neighboring low wealth districts because they don’t want their property taxes to support a population of more needy students.   

The solution to this irrational and inequitable education funding system is obvious: eliminate local control of education funding. Such, in fact, was the recommendation of national commission on school funding appointed by President Nixon around the time of the Rodriguez decision; New York State’s Fleishmann Commission similarly proposed full state funding at about the same time.  It’s time to reconsider those insightful recommendations.