Students, Principals, Districts Suing California For Change

Hoping to spur statewide reform, a coalition of students, school districts, and educational organizations has sued the state, claiming that California's education funding system is unconstitutional and has failed students.

Nine California school districts, about 60 individual students, the California School Board Association, the Association of California School Administrators and the California State PTA form the coalition, which filed a complaint against the state of California and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on May 20. The suit asks the State to design a system that meets the guidelines it already sets for education.

The lawsuit, Robles-Wong et al. v. California, could radically change the landscape of public education in California. But it could also take years to affect schools.

Adequacy lawsuits in other states have had mixed effects. In 2006, a judge ruled that an extra $1.93 billion was needed for New York City public schools. However, the ruling did not address complaints about New York's antique funding system, and it awarded substantially less money than the city had anticipated.

The California case doesn't have a dollar figure attached to it. The lawsuit instead takes aim at the fundamental issues in the way California funds education. California's system is heavily dependent on state revenue, and in bad economic times education takes one of the biggest hits.

Funding in California also lags behind most states. The lawsuit cites a National Education Association statistic in which California ranked 47th in the nation on spending per pupil in 2008-2009. California also ranked poorly on ratios of faculty per pupil, coming in at 49th for teachers, 47th for principals, and 50th for librarians, according to 2007-2008 Digest of Education Statistics.

Robles-Wong challenges California to address the state's poor funding and financial structure. Lawyers heading up the case say they're not asking the court for much. Abe Hajela, a Sacramento advocacy lawyer representing the districts and education organizations, called the lawsuit a "broad systemic attack" but said it was also "modest."

"We're not asking the court to design a [new] system," Hajela said. "What we're really asking for is to make the system more rational."

California hasn't funded education properly in decades, according to UCLA's John Rogers, who has studied the budget and who heads up IDEA, an organization dedicated to research on equality and access issues in education.

"These are drastic times," Rogers said. With more funding, Rogers said, "districts wouldn't need to dramatically cut back core services."

The recession has cut even deeper, especially for schools in high poverty areas.  A quarter of all students in California live in poverty and are likely to be attending a school with large classes, reduced funding, and fewer classroom materials, according to a study from IDEA.

But Hajela said it's not just disadvantaged students hurt by the funding system.

"We're doing poorly across the board," Hajela said in a phone interview. "There's this mythology that white kids, affluent kids, Asian kids are all doing really well—that's just not true."

Bill Koski, a lawyer for the students involved in the suit, said he hopes the legislature and the governor take this as a cue for action.

"Business as usual was not going to solve things in Sacramento," Koski said over the phone. "Essentially there needs to be a new politics."

A specialist in educational policy, Koski has taken on expulsion, special education, and other education lawsuits. He said his experiences with the California system made it plain that bigger changes were needed.

"Some problems are not fixable at the local level," Koski said.

So far the governor's office has been relatively—though not completely—quiet on the issue.

"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," said state Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss in a statement released after the lawsuit was filed.

But a June 7 article in Education Week hinted that Schwarzenegger and Reiss may be willing to work with the plaintiffs and the court on school finance, with a focus on reform.

"Just looking at the finance system is not going to achieve the results that the lawsuit says it wants to achieve in terms of student achievement if all we do is change the finance system and add more funding," Ms. Reiss told Edweek. "First we have to look at our entire education system and the distribution of money and make sure we have a system that maximizes getting dollars to the classroom of every student, especially in the form of a highly effective teacher."

Few dispute California's public school system is in trouble. But the debate will rage on about how the State should fund it and how that money should be used.

And even if the coalition wins this case, sweeping changes are no guarantee. Hajela said broad changes in the system will only happen with substantial political will and public support.

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