24 May State Faces Multiple Suits for Failure to Adequately Fund Schools (CA)

May 24, 2010

By: David Greenwald
Source: California Progress Report

Given the state of California’s economy and cutbacks to education, perhaps it is not surprising that several different groups are threatening to sue. On Thursday a lawsuit was filed in Alameda County by the California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators, and the California State PTA.

The suit calls for the courts to get rid of the current financing system and to direct the governor and Legislature to create one that is sound, stable and sufficient. They argued it prevents six million students from receiving the education that they are entitled to under the state’s constitution.

The suit contends that the state has failed to prioritize school funding as the constitution and Prop 98 requires. California has set some of the highest standards in the county, but ranks nearly last among all states in per-pupil funding and in the ratio of students to teachers, counselors, and nurses.  The result is that California students per form poorly compared with those in other states.

"The State of California has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation to support its public schools in a way that ensures that all students are provided an opportunity to meet the State’s academic goals and acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for success in our competitive economy, and to become informed citizens and productive members of society," the complaint reads. "Plaintiffs ask this Court to declare the State’s education finance system unconstitutional and order the State to design an educational finance system that fulfills its constitutional duty to all children in California."

The suit further alleges that the California Constitution recognizes that education is "essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people."  In furtherance of this, the suit claims, "the State has established a comprehensive education program that defines the specific academic knowledge, skills, and abilities that all public schools are expected to teach and all students are expected to learn in order to be informed and engaged citizens, productive participants in the economy, and competitive candidates for postsecondary education."

Unfortunately the state falls well short of these obligations and has created a funding system that was developed decades ago under different educational times and fiscal needs.

"The State makes absolutely no attempt to align funding policies and mechanisms with the educational program it has put in place, to determine the actual cost of the educational program, or to provide districts with the financial resources to provide the programs and services it has prescribed. Nor does the State’s funding scheme take into account the lear ning needs of certain populations of students, including English Learners and economically disadvantaged children, to ensure that all children receive an opportunity to achieve the State’s educational goals and thus have an opportunity to participate in civic life and become productive participants in the economy. Instead, the State bases funding for its education program on formulas that were cobbled together decades ago for a very different educational program and very different student needs."

Frank Pugh, president of the California School Boards Association said on Thursday, "Schools have been cut to the bone for the last two years. These cuts are just the tip of the iceberg."

Jo A.S. Loss, president of the California State PTA added, "The time for patience has passed. We cannot wait to fix our school finance system any more than children can postpone their childhood."

The Governor’s office naturally has vowed to vigorously fight this suit.  The Governor’s Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss issued a strong statement on Thursday opposing the suit, “The Governor will oppose this lawsuit and believes the state will prevail. The funding of public education in California has long been and continues to be a top priority of California, even in bad economic and budget times."

She continued, "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 regardless of where they live or their race or economic background.”

However, elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O’Connell issued a strong statement in support.

“California students are the victims of broken budget promises and a broken school funding system," said Superintendent O’Connell.  "I applaud this effort to align appropriate funding for our public education with our goal of educating students to master our rigorous academic standards. Budget discussions about schools in California have for too long been a one-sided conversation about how to stretch dwindling resources. This lawsuit now forces a conversation we must have about actually meeting the needs of our students."

Mr. O’Connell cite the Legislative Analyst’s recent analysis on general fund spending the Governor’s proposed May revised budget which suggested, "the level of spending proposed by the administration would continue the recent drop in state spending, as adjusted for growth in population and inflation. In 2010–11, the inflation adjusted per capita spending level would be similar to that of 1993–94 — also a low point due to a recession."

Jack O’Connell continued, “California is failing to fund programs and resources students need to thrive and compete in a competitive global economy. Class sizes are growing. Summer school, arts, music, librarians, nurses, and counselors, have been cut. The school year at many districts has been reduced. For years, our teachers, administrators, and especially our students have been doing more with less. A growing number of California districts face financial insolvency, and California finds itself near the bottom nationally in per pupil funding."

He concluded, “A well educated population is the key to California’s successful future. We urgently need to prioritize this responsibility to our students and future generations. If the political will to protect our future is faltering, perhaps this lawsuit and the courts will be the catalyst to meet our obligation to the more than six million students in our state.”

This would not be the only suit threat that lingers over the state.  A coalition of grassroots groups, representing thousands of low-income students and parents from across California, announced on Thursday that it is offering the State one final chance to agree to transform a system that the Governor’s own Committee on Education Excellence said is "not equitable;…not efficient; and…not sufficient for students who face the greatest challenges.” 

"We’re informing the State it’s out of time. Unless the Governor and Legislature agree to take unprecedented action, we’re going to un-stick the legislative paralysis in Sacramento through the courts," said John Affeldt, a managing attorney at Public Advocates. "That means making sure there is adequate funding to educate all students to 21st century standards and that the funding is equitably delivered."

"Under our State Constitution, every child deserves a meaningful education, regardless of income, race, ethnicity or zip code," added Public Advocates staff attorney Tara Kini, a former school teacher. "That means an education that will prepare students for college and a successful career and to be engaged democratic citizens. For years now, millions of California students have been denied this fundamental right."

The demand letter points to the fact that more than half of the California students fail to achieve proficiency on the State’s content standards, one in three students fails to graduate high school, and that California students lag behind students in nearly every other state. It also notes that California has dropped in recent years to 47th in per pupil spending and now, with recent budget cuts, may have the lowest student fundi ng in the nation.

"The statistics don’t lie. Children in poor neighborhoods, especially those who are black and brown, attend districts and schools with few financial resources that have been further decimated by recent budget cuts. Their schools are being forced to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, cut course offerings, and eliminate many support services," said ACCE Board Member Edgar Hilbert. "Why are we surprised when they have low test scores and alarming dropout rates?"

According to Thursday’s release, the letter argues that the State Constitution establishes a right to a meaningful education that will prepare students to succeed economically and participate in our democracy. It charges the State with violating this right found in the California Constitution’s Education and Equal Protection Clauses. The letter also argues that the State has violated its constitutional duty to first fund education, in violation of Article XVI, section 8(a).

"Despite the fact that the founders of California’s Constitution made public education the right of every child, and voters said it must be funded "first," it continues to come last," said Howard Rice Attorney Marty Glick. "This has to change, and it appears that it will only happen through the courts."

The timing of the CQE letter intentionally coincides with a lawsuit filed today in Alameda County by the California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators, and the California State PTA.

"It’s great that the Sacramento education professionals are fighting for change. We need them engaged," said Jeremy Lahoud, CFJ executive director and CQE executive committee member. " At the same time, we want to make sure that low-income parents, students and grassroots community members have a direct say in their kids’ future."

The letter makes clear these are not new demands. The Campaign for Quality Education, Californians for Justice, and ACCE—along with Public Advocates—have for years organized their communities to demand that the State take action to fix California’s broken school finance system and increase funding for public education.

The CQE has supported past efforts to reform school funding through a state-mandated Quality Education Commission and supported reform efforts called for by the state-commissioned Getting Down to Facts studies and the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.

Most recently, the CQE sponsored and built support for AB 8 (Brownley) (2009), a proposal that would have required a bipartisan governmental working group to propose a new funding structure to the Legislature by December 2010. Among other things, the new system was to have been equitable, rational, and based on the costs of educating students. Although it passed with wide bipartisan support (79-0 in the Assembly; 31-6 in the Senate), it was vetoed.

"Many years have been spent, and valiant efforts made, trying to work with the State to fix this problem," concluded Munger Tolles attorney Rohit Singla. " Given the stakes, it’s unfortunate the State apparently will live up to its responsibilities only if forced to."

The groups have asked for a response from the State within two weeks regarding its willingness to move aggressively to change the system and act to provide constitutionally required education opportunity to the millions of children now in the public school system. If no indications are forthcoming from the State, the coalition plans to file suit.

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