Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Kentucky Supreme Court declares entire education system unconstitutional

The Kentucky Supreme Court's decision in Rose v. Council for Better Education was a landmark case amid three waves of school finance challenges that began in federal court in the late 1960s. Plaintiffs seeking to provide equitable public schools were frustrated in their attempts to use the U. S. Constitution as a basis to overturn funding schemes (See 1973 San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez). The third wave began with Rose, and by the end of 1989, decisions in Montana and Texas cemented an emerging trend. Third wave cases de-emphasized equal protection analysis. Rather, plaintiffs relied on education clauses in state constitutions. These cases were, for the most part, characterized by an emphasis on adequacy rather than equity. Plaintiffs in the first two waves of school funding cases tended to emphasize the reduction of spending disparities. They focused on input measures like per-pupil spending. Conversely, plaintiffs in third wave cases concentrated on the sufficiency of school funding and postulated the existence of a constitutional floor of minimally adequate education to which public school students are entitled. When courts have found the education afforded students to be below this minimum, they have ruled in favor of plaintiffs.

The Kentucky Supreme Court defined the constitutional mandate declaring the fundamental right of every child in the Commonwealth to an adequate education. The court also reaffirmed that the legislature had sole responsibility to provide an efficient system of common schools and defined the elements of that system. In so doing, the Supreme Court decision declared the entire system of schools unconstitutional, which ultimately lead to what was arguably the most sweeping education reform in history.

The plaintiff Council for Better Education greatly benefited from powerful outside forces including the press and a host of civic, business and education groups coordinated by a citizen's advocacy group called The Prichard Committee - all pressing for better schools.

While Plaintiff's attorney, former Governor and federal judge Bert Combs, would have preferred a federal court, after Rodriguez it was clear that state court was the right venue for the case. Combs knew there was a separation of powers problem and appropriate relief would have to be suggested carefully so as not to intrude on legislative authority. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment that the present system was unconstitutional; that the Governor must call a special session; and that the legislative leaders must present legislation that would increase funding to an amount that was equitable and adequate.

The defense argued that the inequities cited in the complaint would not exist if the plaintiff school districts had not mismanaged funds and had passed permissive taxes in their districts. They claimed the state legislature had done the best they could since the people of Kentucky did not want more taxes and that Kentucky is a "poor state."

In a momentous decision on May 31, 1988, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Raymond Corns decided that the legislature had failed in their duty to provide an efficient system of schools. The case was immediately appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Kentucky Supreme Court came to its landmark decision under the leadership of an activist Chief Justice, Robert F. Stephens. The heart of the Rose case was the court's definition of an efficient system of common schools. In just over eight pages the Supreme Court discussed and enumerated characteristics of an efficient system of schools: one established and maintained by the General Assembly to be substantially uniform throughout the state, free to all Kentucky children, and one that provides equal educational opportunity regardless of place of residence or economic conditions. The court declared: "Each child, every child in this Commonwealth must be provided with an equal opportunity to have an adequate education... The children of the poor and the children of the rich, the children who live in poor districts and the children who live in rich districts must be given the same opportunity and access to an adequate education." An efficient system must also be sufficiently funded, free of waste, duplication, mismanagement, and political influence and it must have as its goal the development of seven specified capacities. These capacities enumerated a substantial set of skills that each student must learn.

Reaction to the ruling was initially shocking to the General Assembly, but after a brief flirtation with defying the court, the legislative leaders embraced the decision and used its political capital to reform the public school system in Kentucky. The landmark Kentucky Supreme Court decision in Rose v. Council for Better Education is singular event that not only changed Kentucky's system of schools, but also started a third wave of national school finance litigation based on a adequacy claims and education clauses in state constitutions.


Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby, 777 S. W. 2d 391, 33 Tex. Sup. J. 12.

Helena Elementary School District No. One v. State of Montana, 236 Mont. 44, 769 P 2d. 684.

Campaign for Fiscal Equity, et. al., v. the State of New York, 187 Misc. 2d 1; 719 N. Y. S. 2d 475.

See also: "Judicial Analysis During the Third Wave of School Finance Litigation: The Massachusetts Decision as a Model," 35 BC L Rev 597.


Day, Richard E., "Each Child, Every Child: The Story of the Council for Better Education, Equity and Adequacy in Kentucky's Schools." Ed. D. diss., University of Kentucky, 2003. Available: (named 2003 Dissertation of the Year by the Education Law Association).

Prepared by Richard E. Day, Ed. D. Instructor, College of Education, University of Kentucky Adjunct Professor, Georgetown College 

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