by Michael Paris. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. 336pp. Cloth $75. ISBN: 9780804763530. Paper $27.50. ISBN: 9780804763547. E-book $27.95. ISBN: 9780804772976.

Reviewed by David Glick, Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, Dartmouth College. Email: David.M.Glick [at]


There are few substantive areas in which studies of politics, economics, policy, and law overlap as much as they do in school finance reform. One could teach a cohesive seminar covering normative questions of judicial review and instrumental variables estimates of reduced class size effects without ever leaving this context. All, or nearly all, of the U.S. states have featured legal cases and/or political movements aimed at changing their public school funding systems. These cases and movements, which often carry on for decades, have produced some major revisions of school finance systems, and some massive increases in funding levels and/or equality. They have also engendered political controversy and outrage as they implicate sensitive subjects such as children, taxes, equality, social mobility, and judicial policy making.

Michael Paris takes a novel approach to these cases and these issues in his new book FRAMING EQUAL OPPORTUNITY: LAW AND THE POLITICS OF SCHOOL FINANCE REFORM. Paris relies on an interpretive approach by using impressively detailed qualitative analyses of education finance reform campaigns in New Jersey and Kentucky. He uses these cases to investigate courts’ ability to produce social change, social movements’ use of legal strategies, and other overlaps between law and politics. Others, most notably Douglas Reed (2001), have investigated legal impact questions in the school finance reform context, but Paris takes a different perspective. Paris’ focus is “would-be reformers.” He emphasizes how social movements, primarily their leaders and lawyers, frame their claims in a process he calls legal translation. As Paris argues convincingly, neither legal strategies’ impact, nor reformers’ tactical options, are dichotomous issues. Understanding these cases requires getting beyond “impact or no impact,” “adequacy or equity,” and “courts or political branches” questions.

The basis of the translation framework is that reformers must decide how to use the legal system to pursue their goals. They make choices about how to frame their cases and about which legal authorities, facts, and evidence to use. As Paris (p.2) defines his key concept, “legal translation refers to the conceptual and rhetorical process through which reformers translate their values and goals into plausible legal claims and arguments.” The book’s primary argument is that the process of legal translation not only affects courts’ interactions with policy questions but also shapes politics outside of formal legal channels. The two case study applications elucidate the translation [*720] concept by making it more concrete. They show that reformers chose two different legal frames in the same substantive area in two different states, and that these frames shaped broad and vital legal and policy debates.

As Paris argues, in the New Jersey case, the reform-oriented attorneys were motivated by their “compensatory vision” of education and education reform. This vision, in contrast to a vision based on an objective standard of adequacy for example, centered on the idea that the finance system must take students’ previous disadvantages into account. This vision was rooted in a strong notion of education as the engine of social mobility and equality of opportunity. Paris details how the reformers translated this vision into legal claims, choices of test cases and clients, and political strategies outside of court. He shows that this translation shaped the courts’ decisions leading to the “parity plus” doctrine and the so-called “Abbot districts.” These were districts to which, according to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the state owed money beyond a parity level to compensate for students’ past disadvantages consistent with the “compensatory vision.”

The New Jersey case also highlights the ways that the reformers’ particular choices constrained their pursuit of social change. The reformers took a very abstract and legalistic approach which included, among other things, building up precedents in pursuit of the compensatory vision. According to Paris’ account, this legalism and the reformers’ particular framing of the issues prevented them from compromising, incorporating pragmatic realities, or mobilizing potential allies. Finally, Paris convincingly shows how the reformers’ framing choices, which resonated with the courts, shaped the broader political debate. The compensatory vision was not just about language and rhetoric. It shaped the ways that key players including the teachers’ unions, middle class parents, and Governors understood their own interests, threats, constraints, and allies.

The contrasts between the New Jersey and Kentucky cases elucidate the argument and broader framework. Paris uses the Kentucky case to show that the New Jersey “compensatory vision” was a choice of legal translation by highlighting an alternative in Kentucky. In Kentucky, reformers were not motivated by an equal starting line vision of education. A “common schools” vision of education shaped the Kentucky reformers’ efforts. As Paris (p.161) writes, “the common school tradition emphasizes public education as training for common citizenship and social integration and downplays the economic and social mobility functions of schooling.” In Kentucky, as in New Jersey, the courts’ doctrine incorporated the reformers’ vision and shaped the broader politics. Unlike in New Jersey, and wholly consistent with the "common schools’’ vision, the debate was not about relative tax bases or leveling up or down. It was about the state improving a broadly problematic system so that it could better prepare all of Kentucky’s children for “a larger life and better citizenship” (p.188).

The detailed case studies convincingly show that the law, politics, and policy of school finance reform were quite different in New Jersey and Kentucky and that these differences stem from the [*721] framing choices that would-be reformers made in the process of legal translation. The case studies are remarkably detailed, thoroughly researched, nuanced, and clearly written. They are also the right method to get inside the key and complex processes of interest. The relationships, interactions, and contextual factors that comprise Paris’ translation concept are best accessed through interpretative work. The cases put the legal part of the story into the broader political and policy context. By doing so, they show the intimate relationship between law and politics in new ways. Paris’ analysis goes beyond the question “can courts produce social change?” It highlights the ways that courts, and the reformers that look to them, shape policy processes and affect the nature of social change.

The depth and detail of the case studies is both strength and a weakness. The cases, particularly the New Jersey one, cover so much material and provide such a detailed play-by-play of the seemingly endless school finance battles that, at times, the theoretical contribution gets lost. That is, the cases sometimes wander away from the core argument about legal translation. For example, the roadmap previewing the New Jersey chapters (pp.59-60) highlights four main themes. However, only some are clearly and explicitly connected to the translation idea. Although the book is able to advance the translation argument while also offering a complete political account of these very interesting and important histories, the two are in tension at times. A reader could question whether this is primarily a general book about courts, politics, and social change, or the definitive political history of school finance reform in New Jersey and Kentucky. The connections between the case study details and the translation concept are not always direct.

My other critiques are familiar to interpretative case study work. One is the “out of sample” question. Do other cases which share legal translation traits with New Jersey and Kentucky evince similar outcomes? Can an analyst define a particular legal translation a priori and then see how it plays out, or does legal translation only emerge once the whole story is clear? A related critique concerns causality. In the New Jersey case, it appears that the reformers’ compensatory vision had a causal effect on the whole process. That is, the elite reformers essentially imposed their framing on the process. In the Kentucky case, the common schools translation appears to have emerged interactively out of a broadly shared ethos and in anticipation of what would be politically viable. I do not think the translation concept requires a strong and unidirectional causal claim, but I do think the book could better confront and clarify these issues in places.

These critiques aside, this is an excellent book. It introduces and advances an important theoretical concept into the broader debate about social movements, courts, and policy change. It highlights the nuanced and varying ways that law and legal claims matter to politics, policy, and social outcomes. It takes on a salient and substantively important legal and policy area and makes a broader theoretical contribution in the process. It also offers a wonderful account of two school finance reform processes which takes the reader well beyond law and courts questions. It should be of interest outside of the law and courts audience [*722] and will appeal to those who are more interested in education, social movements, and state and local politics.


© Copyright 2010 by the author, David Glick.