Seeing silver lining in Robles-WongFor plaintiffs, case could yet roll their way
A Superior Court ruling narrowing the scope of two suits challenging the state’s system of funding education is distressing to those favoring more money for California schools. But while disappointed, lawyers for the cases say they’re not despondent – or ready to give in.
Three factors are giving them hope, as they plot strategy over the next few weeks: Serrano, Proposition 8, and Judge Steven Brick’s ambiguity.
Serrano. That’s the name of the landmark court case that found funding schools largely through property taxes to be unconstitutional because of huge revenue disparities it created among districts. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steven Brick cited the case in his ruling this month, though in ways in which attorneys for the two funding cases – Robles-Wong v California and Campaign for Quality Education v California – disagreed.
But the point is that the trial judge in the original Serrano lawsuit 35 years ago threw that case out, too. The state Supreme Court overturned the ruling, let the case move forward, and the rest is history.
Brick hasn’t thrown out the two cases, though he has rejected the thrust of the arguments – that the state Constitution’s imperative, in Article IX, to establish public schools, also requires that the Legislature fund education adequately. Now lawyers have until Feb. 14 to decide whether to recraft their lawsuit in a way that Brick may accept or, perhaps eventually, to appeal the original claims with the hope that this Supreme Court would be open to overruling a trial judge, too.
Proposition 8. The substance of the state’s gay marriage ban isn’t directly related to the education lawsuits, but plaintiffs’ lawyers are heartened by the state’s response to it. After a federal district judge declared last summer that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional, Gov. Schwarzenegger and then-Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to appeal; they said they agreed with the decision.
Schwarzenegger and Brown opposed the funding suits brought by the Education Coalition, Public Advocates, and other attorneys representing disadvantaged kids. And so far they have won. But Brown is now governor, and Kamala Harris is the new AG. Would they actively fight a narrower lawsuit, one that addresses the big swings in funding levels under Proposition 98, the inequities in funding formulas that have built up over the last 25 years, and the failure to address the academic needs of low-income children and English learners? Might they start negotiating, as Schwarzenegger did in the Williams case, a slimmed down Robles-Wong that the state settled in 2004?
There’s been no indication that they would welcome a settlement, but it’s been 10 days, and neither Harris’s office nor Brown’s has uttered a word about Brick’s ruling. Good omen or just evidence that they’re focused on more immediate problems?
Brick’s ambiguity. Brick was clear about what he didn’t want: to be drawn into a protracted adequacy funding case, like those that have persisted for years, sometimes decades, in other states. But Brick was vague, no doubt intentionally, about what issues he might permit to go to trial. He concluded that Constitution doesn’t require any particular level of education funding – no matter how devastating the impact of minimal funding. However, he implied that there may be an equity claim – that the state’s system of funding is irrationally or inequitably funded.
The lawyers for Robles-Wong and Campaign for Quality Education argued that the Legislature has approved rigorous state academic standards but has not calculated the costs of sufficiently funding them. Brick implied there may be grounds for trying the claim that all students lack an equal opportunity to learn them.
The question is, How broad a scope would Brick allow? If it’s limited to arguments over efficiency – how best to shift already skimpy education funding around – or over money redistribution – pitting rich against poor districts – then the coalition behind the suits (the PTA, California School Board Assn., California teachers and administrators associations) might fracture. But if Brick were to allow a claim that state funding and the Education Code put low-income children and English learners at a disadvantage, then the case becomes bigger.
Mike Kirst, Brown’s campaign adviser and now his State Board president, has recommended redirecting money from earmarked special programs, known as categorical programs, as a weighted funding formula with extra money for disadvantaged students. But it might take significantly more funding to do this in a way that would at least guarantee that all districts wouldn’t lose any money.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers might relish a chance to force the Legislature to make that choice. They have three weeks to state their case in a way that Brick might find palatable.