Chris Yarrell

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That a qualified teacher workforce functions as the most important factor affecting student learning and achievement is beyond dispute. Yet, the right to education—which is a state obligation codified within all fifty 50 state constitutions—has been vindicated largely within the province of school finance litigation. Indeed, for nearly five decades, education litigants have brought school finance disputes in virtually every state, succeeding in more than half of them. Despite the hard-won victories notched by education litigants over this time, however, courts adjudicating school finance disputes have largely failed to move beyond declaring simple proscriptions on facially unequal school funding regimes. Although these wins have led to many of the important gains made within the education rights arena, courts’ general reluctance to consider the deeper effects of such state-sanctioned inequality has undermined much of the foregoing gains. This reality has become painfully apparent in the context of our national teacher shortage crisis. To be sure, courts are not constitutionally obligated to address many of the substantive questions implicit in school finance suits. In fact, courts that attempt to resolve these underlying, more substantive questions risk running afoul of separation of powers strictures. Yet, to vindicate a child’s constitutional right to education, these risks should not preclude a court from engaging in more searching inquiries of presumptively suspect state action. In light of the prevailing teacher shortage, then, this Essay contends that state courts should demand that state legislatures redress the maldistribution of qualified, effective teachers as the key educational resource that they have always been. Indeed, as observed by Professor Derek Black, our nation’s school finance precedents “obligate[] states to address their distributional failures in regard to key education resources.” This distributional failure is especially apparent in California, the nation’s largest state-run public school system, which is the focus of this Essay’s analysis. Accordingly, by applying the reasoning adopted in key school finance precedent, this Essay demonstrates that qualified, effective K12 teachers function as “key education resources” that must, as a constitutional matter, be distributed equally.