Funding suit’s goal: return to local control
In their long-anticipated suit over adequate funding, the California School Boards Assn. and its parter in the Education Coalition, the Association of California School Administrators, will challenge the state not only on how much it spends on public schools — no surprise there — but also how it funds them. They plan to revisit the ’70s, with its historic Serrano decision, which equalized school spending, and Proposition 13, which shifted control funding and power to Sacramento. They’ll argue that it’s time to take another look and this time do it right.
In an interview, CSBA Executive Director Scott Plotkin confirmed the Mercury News story that the two organizations will file suit in coming months over the state’s failure to adequately fund eduction. And he outlined what will be the thrust of the suit: a demand to return to more control. They’re turning to the courts, because the Legislature and voters, by initiative, have severely limited locals’ ability to raise money.
An adequacy suit has been talked about for years. The slashing of more than $14,5 billion in K-12 spending in the past two budgets, with additional cuts all but certain this year and next, have made the suit inevitable. California is in the bottom half of states in school funding — 46th if cost of living is factored in, according to Education Week, and may be headed to dead last.
The plaintiffs will argue that the Legislature has set among the nation’s most rigorous academic standards, then failed to fund what’s needed to attain them.
So California would presumably be the prime candidate to win an adequacy suit. The state Constitution’s requirement that the state “provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported” is vague, but other states have won adequacy verdicts on even squishier language.
But adequacy cases can linger in the courts for decades and can be extravagantly expensive for all parties, and ultimately, for taxpayers. (A case in New Jersey is headed into its fourth decade!) As Hoover Institution senior fellow Eric Hanushek argues in his new book, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in Public Schools, there’s been very little to show, in terms of student achievement, after courts have ordered states to cough up more money for schools. (See my video interview with Hanushek.) Additional spending, he says, must be coupled with fundamental, structural school reform to have any substantial effect. The Governor’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence, on which Hanushek served, made the same case.
Plotkin, however, is promising a different approach to the standard adequacy suit. The plaintiffs won’t be asking a court for a specific dollar figure, as happened in New York, where a state appeals court ultimately chopped down a gargantuan lower court order for billions more for New York City schools. They will cite as evidence the Excellence Committee’s recommendation for more money — at least $6 billion, mainly for low-income and English-learning kids. And that report preceded current multi-year budget cuts. The plaintiffs will also cite studies in the 2007 Getting Down To Facts studies that, using different methodologies, estimated the cost of every school attaining an 800 API score (more in future posts on those findings).
Plotkin is also hoping that the next governor negotiates a settlement, as Arnold Schwarzenegger did with the mini-adequacy Williams case in 2005, after his predecessor, Gray Davis, spent millions of dollars contesting it. But mainly the plaintiffs will argue that the Legislature has set among the nation’s most rigorous academic standards, then failed to fund what’s needed to attain them. And they’ll propose local control as an answer.
Challenging the governor and Legislature carries great risk, but the coalition sees nothing to lose. State revenues have already fallen behind in this fiscal year, with at least a $7 billion deficit projected for 2010-11. At the same time, voters on a local level continue to indicate a willingness to spend more school, as indicated by polls and the consistent passage of school construction bonds. As a new study by EdSource, Local Revenues for Schools: Limits and Options in California, concluded, Californians “would tax themselves if they believed the additional revenues would directly benefit their communities.”
But at this point there are more limits than options. Local districts can pass a parcel tax, by a two-thirds majority of voters, and county voters can raise the sales tax for schools (only San Francisco has done this, because it’s a one-district county). But those are the only choices, and few districts, other than those in the Bay Area, have passed parcel taxes. Parcel taxes are highly restrictive, since they must be a uniform amount per property. (A few districts, have begun to experiemnt different parcel tax rates, based on square footage of parcel or building: see page 3, EdSource study.)
There has been a lot of talk over the years about changing with Prop 13, starting with charging commercial properties at a higher tax rate or assessing them more frequently. The Excellence Committee, in an appendix of the full technical report, included one option, raising the tax rate from 1 percent to 1.1 percent of a property’s assessed value. But there remains fierece opposition to tinkering with Prop 13, with only 37 percent favoring a split roll (separating residential and comerical properties for taxation) in a recent poll.
And then there’s the issue of equity. The state would have to help poor districts raise money for schools, perhaps with a formula for matching dollars. Otherwise, the disparities between property-rich and property-poor schools would grow, leading immediately to another Serrano suit. Equalization of effort must be part of any solution. The Ed Coalition understands this.
An adequacy suit faces daunting challenges. But with state government in disarray and schools facing more cuts, what’s the alternative?