Times are tough, a California appellate court said, and the judiciary cannot compel state lawmakers to come up with nearly $1 billion to reimburse unfunded education mandates imposed on school districts.
The panel of the California Court of Appeal ruled in a case brought by school districts and the California School Boards Association that the districts can seek relief from unfunded mandates in a separate judicial proceeding and receive a declaration that they need not fulfill a mandate for one year at a time.
But on the big-ticket item sought in the lawsuit—reimbursement of more than $900 million from the state—the midlevel state appellate court said no.
“Currently, our state is experiencing an extreme budget crisis with a budget deficit estimated to be more than $20 billion,” the court said. “Any money a court would direct to the school districts would reduce funds available for other obligations and implicate funding priorities and policy-making decisions. These decisions are for the legislature.”
The plaintiffs, including the San Diego Unified School District, the San Jose Unified School District, and other districts, said they are owed more than $900 million for costs associated with mandated programs, such as aids education, pupil health screening, criminal background checks, and teacher incentives.
Because a state commission identified a number of the programs as mandates, and the California Constitution requires that such mandates be funded, state lawmakers have, since 2002, appropriated as little as $1,000 statewide for each mandate. Lawmakers claimed they were deferring full payment until a later date, a practice identified in court papers as the “Education Credit Card.”
In a partial victory for the districts, the court rejected the state’s arguments that the partial payments mean the mandates are not unfunded.
“By attempting to pay for the new programs with a ‘credit card’ with no fixed date for full payment, the state is shifting the actual costs of these mandates to the local school districts,” the court said in its Feb. 9 opinion in California School Boards Association v. State of California.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Calif. Court Rejects Unfunded-Mandate Demands