Dismissal motion for Robles-Wong

Lawyers for education groups and low-income students say they are confident that, if given the chance, they would prove that California’s school funding system is irrational and insufficient and therefore that the state should be forced to redesign and fund it. ­

But first, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steven Brick must rule that the two  lawsuits – Robles-Wong v California and Campaign for Quality Education v California – can  go to trial. And during two hours of arguments on Friday, a sometimes skeptical Brick indicated that he needed to be convinced of the constitutional imperative to allow the lawsuits to proceed. A poorly funded K-12 school system is not by itself sufficient rationale, he implied.

The critical hearing was on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuits brought by the California School Boards Assn., the Association of California School Administrators, the state PTA, and lawyers for some low-income students (Robles-Wong) and other minority and low-income families represented by Public Advocates (Campaign for Quality Education).

In very broad language, two sections in Article IX of the state Constitution and subsequent State Supreme Court decisions have affirmed public education as a fundamental right and the creation of a statewide system of public schools as a legislative priority. The plaintiffs argue that to meet the obligation to produce “informed and productive members of society,” the state created a system of rigorous academic standards for all grades. But it has failed to fund what it needed to give students – especially minority and low-income kids – an equal opportunity to  master those standards.

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The Ed Coalition’s suit, Robles-Wong v California, is named for the first plaintiff listed in the suit, Maya Robles-Wong, an articulate senior at Alameda High School. Click here to listen to her in a short interview that I made at the court hearing on Friday. Later that afternoon, Maya was notified she was accepted at Wellesley College, her first choice. (Rather than undermine the claims of the lawsuit, her admission to an elite college is a tribute to an exceptional student who cares about educational opportunities for all students.)

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“California’s school finance system is based on formulas and policies cobbled together over the decades and bears no relation to the current educational needs of students,” the lawyers argue in their latest brief.

The fundamental level of education is insufficient because of the funding system, said Public Advocates managing attorney John Affeldt, one of several plaintiffs lawyers who  argued on Friday. “The court needs to find that the system must be corrected and ordered fixed.”

But Deputy Attorney General Pauline Gee, defending the state, argued that the lawsuits named the wrong party in the wrong court without basis. There’s nothing in the Constitution or case law, Gee said, that requires the Legislature to fund at a specified level – other than defined by Proposition 98. The court would be overstepping its bounds to supersede the prerogative of the Legislature and voters.

“There is no  constitutional mandate that imposes a duty to require the Legislature” to fund at a level aligned with academic requirement,  Gee said. “You  cannot use standards that are constantly changing,” a reference to  the recent adoption of Common Core standards. “What are factors that result in higher achievement? Money alone will not  satisfy that.”

Gee also said that if the Legislature has imposed requirements that it has not funded, then plaintiffs – or at least school districts – should have made their case to the Commission on State Mandates – something they haven’t done.

Noting that Proposition 98 allows the state to suspend minimum funding with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, Brick asked whether the obligation to fund a fundamental right means that state doesn’t get to fund other priorities, like fighting forest fires?

Plaintiffs’ lawyers responded that passage in 1988 of Proposition 98, which both sides acknowledge set a minimum funding level, preceded the creation of state academic standards and doesn’t replace the Legislature’s obligation to fulfill  a fundamental right.

Stanford Law School professor Bill Koski, an attorney for Robles-Wong families, said that English learners, economically disadvantaged and minority students especially do not get resources based on statewide standards.

Finance lawsuits in other states have drawn courts into protracted litigation. That no doubt was on Brick’s mind when he pressed plaintiffs lawyers on precisely what they were seeking – simply a declaration that the current inefficient funding system is the issue or that insufficient money is the problem.

“We are not asking court to order to spend X billion or 2 times X billion dollars but to recognize right to qualitative education has been denied because of the funding system,” Affeldt said.

Noting that Affeldt said that the system is inadequate and inequitable, Brick pressed further: Suppose the court rules that the case is confined to one or the other.

Affeldt responded that this case would be no different from other constitutional litigation, such as over medical care in state prisons. The state cannot separate out the issue of money in ordering the state to fix prisons, he said.

Even though school districts, through the school boards association, are a party to Robles-Wong, Brick asked whether districts themselves should be the defendants for their failure to allocate resources properly to meet students’ needs.

But Affeldt said the fault doesn’t lie with districts. “We are claiming that state’s inaction and policies – and disparities in funding – deny fundamental right to an equal education.”

Brick indicated he would rule next month on the state’s dismissal motion, called a demurrer.

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About John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

11 thoughts on “Dismissal motion for Robles-Wong

  1. Ze'ev Wurman

    ““We are not asking court to order to spend X billion or 2 times X billion dollars but to recognize right to qualitative education has been denied because of the funding system,” Affeldt said.”
     
    Right. And once it is recognized, then … what? A classic adequacy lawsuit, this time for money, will follow a week later. Luckily the judge is no dummy and hence Affeldt was forced to admit:
     
    “this case would be no different from other constitutional litigation, such as over medical care in state prisons. The state cannot separate out the issue of money in ordering the state to fix prisons, he said.”
     
    If it walks like an adequacy suit, and it talks like an adequacy suit, it is an adequacy suit. Despite hiding behind some noble-sounding euphemisms.
     
    On a separate note, what is that offset section in blue font? Is it a quote (where from)? Or is it you, John? Because the fact that Maya Robles-Wong was accepted to Wellesley does seem to undermine the lawsuit claims of inability to provide quality education, despite protestation to the contrary. (Don’t we pump the head of every American student that s/he is exceptional? Surely our schools don’t lie! smile)

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  2. Maribel

    Finally someone has taken the initiative to sue the state over school funding.  The state continues to try to fix it’s budget problems on the backs of the most vulnarable members of our society–our children.  If we wait for the state to fund education adequately we will have to wait  a long time, mean while districts are working on a shoestring budget wich has forced districts to increase class sizes; cut music and art;  currently we have 300 students per one counselor in our highschools. This lawsuit is not the silver bullet to fix education but it is definetely a step in the right direction. 

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  3. John Fensterwald - Educated Guess Post author

    Ze’ev: The indent was my insertion, yes — a way to grab your attention to introduce you to the eponym behind the lawsuit. It may be ironic that a lawsuit focusing on the inadequacy of the state funding system is identified with a student who is going to Wellesley, but the facts in the case — funding levels, grad rates, proficiency rates — speak for themselves, as does the need for changes in how money is allocated in the state. Maya is an articulate advocate for change.

    Robles-Wong is certainly an adequacy case, but there are equity and reform issues motivating some of the plaintiffs that make it different. Best hope: an out of court settlement that combines more money with already identified reforms, including some that CTA and school districts won’t like.

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  4. Gary Ravani

    Most adequacy suits filed in the US have been sustained by the courts. That should be the case in the latest ones filed in CA.

    The arguments would be more subtle if it wasn’t for the fact that CA has: highest class sizes in the nation;  fewest administrators per child; fewest counselors;  fewest librarians; fewest nurses; etc.; etc. CA does a miserable job supporting its schools and children. After the recent cuts CA may well be last in the nation, in cost of living adjusted dollars, in support per student in the nation.

    I recall the “Getting Down to Facts” studies with estimates ranging from $34 billion to $1.5 trillion to bring CA’s spending per child into alignment with its academic standards. And that’s the metric for “adequacy lawsuits.” Are the dollars expended for education in alignment with the difficulty of the standards. Amd this state is (in)famous for its “world class standards.”

    Taking just the low estimate at $34 billion, add in the $1.5 to $2 billion Edsource says it will take to impolement the new Common Core, and then add in the $18 billion in cuts to be restored. As they say, pretty soon you’re talking real money.

    If CA was in the top tier, or even at the national avergage, in funding then reasonable arguments could be made that there is no lack of adequacy. Of course, the courts may not see it that way. We will continue to hear from the grumps in the business community who have never wanted to pay the kind of taxes that would support the kind of education system they say they want.

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  5. Dana Bunnett

    While I do not think money solves all problems, it can make a difference and the disparity that exists between districts in well-heeled communities and those in lower-income communities is appalling.  Take, for example, two districts here in Santa Clara County. In 08-09,  the Mountain View – Los Altos High School District’s expenditure per ADA was $13,430 whereas in the Eastside Union High School District it was only $9,402.  While a portion of this difference may be attributable to local fundraising, much of it lies in the state/federal funding structure. 
    This funding disparity is very disturbing and perpetuates the segregation of  low-income, minority children into schools with fewer resources, a trend you can see throughout the state.  Eastside has 37.8% of its students on Free/Reduced Price lunch (an indicator of poverty) compared to the MVLA which has only 14.2% on FRP Lunch.   Eastside is 89.5% “minority” with almnost 50%  Latino, Native American and African American background.  MVLA is 44.2% “minority” with 26.5% Latino, Native American and African American.  Last,  the percent of English Language learners in Eastside is 22.3%, in MVLA it is only 7.1%. 

    The fear I have with a lawsuit such as this, is that instead of increasing the resources in a district such as Eastside, that the state’s solution to this disparity is to “level down”.  But this solution must be rejected.  A good measure of the cost of sending a student to a high-quality, college prep high school can be ascertained by looking at the cost of tuition at private schools in our area.  Most of these start around $15,000.  By this standard, even MVLA is not funded at adequate levels.  We must find a way to make adequate investments in our children and youth if we hope to have them be successful in learning and successful in life.

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  6. Paul Muench

    I have to say I admire Gary’s forthrightness. At least he is getting to the heart of the matter for people who support solving this issue in the courts.  And in slightly more succinct wording I think that is, “The voting public has failed to find a way to tax the wealthy enough to adequately fund education so let’s try to do it through the courts.”  And kudos to Gary for wanting to match the revenues to the spending.

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  7. Ze'ev Wurman

    Let’s assume Gary is right. “[T]hat CA has: highest class sizes in the nation;  fewest administrators per child; fewest counselors;  fewest librarians; fewest nurses; etc.; etc. CA does a miserable job supporting its schools and children. After the recent cuts CA may well be last in the nation, in cost of living adjusted dollars, in support per student in the nation.”
     
    Yet it is also true that California is one of the most taxed states in the nation. Sixth heaviest in income tax burden, almost the worst (#48) in sales tax burden, and even not so light (#13) in property tax burden. We are high (#12) in tax collection per capita.  Etc., etc.
     
    So I am not sure I would characterize the situation as Paul did, that the “voting public has failed to find a way to tax the wealthy enough to adequately fund education.” Seems to me rather that we already tax a lot, throw much of it to various privileged interests, and then complain that we don’t have enough money to fund all we want to fund. How surprising.

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    1. John Fensterwald - Educated Guess Post author

      I will refer to a previous post, a summary of an EdSource document on where California ranks in spending and capacity to spend as of 2007-08, before the recession: 20th in the nations in terms of personal income per student; 39th in the nation in terms of dollars per $1,000 of income on K-12 education.

      Local and state taxes: In 2006-07, California was 14th in the nation in taxes it collected – 11.4 percent of personal income, mainly through its relatively high personal income tax. But the $37 per $1,000 of personal income spent on K-12 schools ranked 39th. That’s because it spent proportionately more on prisons, police and fire protection (third highest in the nation), and on public health than other states.

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