Published Online: May 20, 2010
Updated: March 23, 2012

Suit Would Overhaul Calif. School Finance System

Carl Barnes, right, father of plaintiffs Kibew Diop, 10, bottom center, and Lumumba Diop speaks about the Robles-Wong v. California lawsuit at a news conference on May 20 at A.P. Giannini Middle School in San Francisco, Calif.
—Jeff Chiu/AP

In what could become the most important school finance litigation in 40 years in California, parents, students, school leaders, and education advocates sued the state Thursday, claiming the way it finances public schools violates the state constitution.

The plaintiffs—including nine school districts and 60 students and their families—argue that although the state prescribes what teachers must teach and what students must learn, it does not provide the resources to deliver on those requirements. They are asking the courts to order the governor and the state legislature to scrap the current finance system and design a new one that is “sound, stable, and sufficient.”

“This lawsuit is the last resort,” said Frank Pugh, the president of the California School Boards Association, one of the plaintiffs. “The governor and the legislature, and I mean both sides of the aisle, have known for some time that the current school finance system is harming students, and yet they’ve done nothing to remedy the crisis.”

The suit was filed May 20 in Alameda County Superior Court.

California, with K-12 enrollment of 6 million public students, ranks near the bottom of the 50 states for its per-pupil funding, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which determined that the state spent $8,164 per pupil in 2007, more than $2,000 less than the national average of $10,557.

California Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will oppose the lawsuit and believes the state will prevail.

"We will continue to fight to keep education a budget priority as well as fight for the other reforms essential to ensuring a great education for all our students," she said in a statement.

Over the past two years, California’s budget woes have forced lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, to make deep spending cuts to many of the state’s core services, including K-12 education. The cuts to public schools have added up to roughly $17 billion over those two years, and more could be in the offing as lawmakers and the governor wrestle with closing a $20 billion gap in the budget proposed for fiscal 2011. State spending on K-12 in fiscal 2010 still accounted for about 37 percent of California’s $91.4 billion overall budget.

But the plaintiffs, which include the districts in San Francisco and Santa Ana, contend that the school finance system—with funding formulas that date back as far as 60 years—has been dysfunctional for years. Their lawsuit, which could take years to play out, is not directed at the upcoming budget negotiations in the state legislature, said Abe Hajela, a Sacramento lawyer for the plaintiffs.

“This was a systemic problem before we had the budget crisis, and it will probably be there after the crisis is resolved,” he said.

Mr. Hajela, who is representing the CSBA, as well as the California State PTA and the Association of California School Administrators, said the case is unlike other school finance lawsuits that have focused purely on equity or adequacy issues, including the 1976 Serrano v. Priest case in California that determined that property-tax rates and per-pupil expenditures had to be to equalized across all of the state’s school districts. The Serrano case was appealed to the California Supreme Court by the defendants, but the case was closed in 1987 after the plaintiffs withdrew.

The essence of the new case, Mr. Hajela said, is that the state’s politicians have consistently fallen short of delivering on the state constitution’s guarantee that education funding be a priority.

“This case is different because the state is exercising its constitutional authority when it comes to having developed an educational program for the state where it’s clear what schools must teach and what students must learn,” Mr. Hajela said. “But the state isn’t living up to its duty to provide the resources to actually deliver on that. This is a systemic attack on school finance. We’re not trying to fix a discrete problem in one district, but an entire system.”

Vol. 29, Issue 33

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