Another setback in funding lawsuits

Plaintiffs rebuffed in equal-protection claim

An Alameda County Superior Court judge has dealt another blow to plaintiffs in two lawsuits claiming that the state’s “insufficient, irrational and unstable” school funding system violated children’s fundamental right to an education. Judge Steven Brick’s rulings this week (Go here and here) again limit attorneys’ constitutional claims and make an appeal of his rulings more likely.

In January, Brick denied the core argument of plaintiffs in the suits, Robles-Wong v. State of California and Campaign for Quality Education v. State of California. They argued that the state constitution establishing education as a fundamental right requires the Legislature in turn to adequately fund it so that all students meet the high academic standards that the state has set. Brick ruled that the Legislature can fund education at the level it chooses, “however devastating the effects of such underfunding have been on the quality of public school education.”

But Brick left open the possibility that attorneys could reframe the lawsuit, based on a claim that their particular plaintiffs – students in nine districts in Robles-Wong and primarily low-income and minority students in five districts in Campaign for Quality Education – were denied an equal opportunity for an education that is afforded to other children in California.

Doing so would have turned a funding adequacy claim into a narrower equal opportunity claim along the lines of the successful Serrano lawsuits in the 1970s, which found that students in property-poor districts were denied equal education resources. But plaintiffs in the new lawsuits wanted to put the state’s funding system itself on trial. They wanted to make a broader interpretation of equal protection, that it’s “sufficient to plead a disparity between the resources needed to have a fair chance” to meet state academic standards, on the one hand, “and the resources they receive, on the other,” as Brick paraphrased the argument of the lawyers in Robles-Wong. But Brick’s position – a  conventional interpretation – is that to assert an equal opportunity violation, plaintiffs must claim that some students are being  denied what others are getting. Taking that tack would have put the plaintiffs in the untenable position of arguing what they don’t believe, that there are sufficient resources to provide most students a fair opportunity not only to pass state standardized tests, but also to be adequately prepared for the demands of higher education and the job market .

No ifs and no Butts

Besides the Serrano cases, the other important precedent-setting case is Butt v. State of California. In that 1992 case, the State Supreme Court ordered the state to step in on behalf of children in Richmond Unified who faced losing six weeks of school because their district ran out of money. Brick said that the plaintiffs in the latest cases misinterpreted the Butt decision to imply that the Legislature has a constitutional obligation to fully fund a law or regulation. What mattered in Butt was that a particular group of students – in this case in a particular school district – received disparate treatment.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs could appeal Brick’s rulings, or they could choose to amend their complaints along a traditional equal protection claim, that low income and minority children receive fewer resources than other students and far less than required to succeed, given their greater needs. This would involve a political calculation; if they won – and they certainly would make a compelling case – the Legislature could choose to redistribute money, not increase funding for all students.

Stating he was disappointed but not surprised by Brick’s ruling, William Koski, a Stanford law professor who is a lead attorney for Robles-Wong, said that his clients would meet over the next month to decide which approach to take. The suit was filed by a coalition of powerful education groups – the California School Boards Association, the state PTA, and the Association of California School Administrators, along with attorneys for disadvantaged children. The California Teachers Association was an intervenor.

Plaintiffs in the second suit are Campaign for Quality Education, a coalition of grassroots, civil rights and research organizations; Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment; PICO, representing 400 religious congregations statewide; Californians for Justice, which works with students in Oakland, Long Beach, Fresno and San Jose; and and San Francisco Organizing Project, a church- and school-based organization in four neighborhoods of San Francisco.

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  1. The last part of the article clearly highlights what is wrong with this picture.  The first plaintiffs are all part of the Education system (the California School Boards Association, the state PTA, and the Association of California School Administrators, etc…) and the second plaintiffs were from organizations that specialize in rounding up the lower strata of society with promises of ‘justice’.

    Both organizations are competing for that ever-dwindling tax dollar to fund their schools.  It isn’t hard to do a demographics check and figure out that at least 70% of the children attending California schools are in families that pay very little into the system and get a huge amount in return.

    Add the results of all of this, especially the graduation rate (the LAUSD is a prime example) and you have a terminally ill system that I see no cure for.

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  2. Regis:

    How do you spell “blaming the victim?”

    ” least 70% of the children attending California schools are in families that pay very little into the system and get a huge amount in return”

    You seem unable to grasp the fact that it is the “children” in the schools who are being short-changed here. How much do you expect children to “pay into the system?”

    The families of  these children are much more likely to pay a larger percentage of their family income in taxes and fees than the wealthy. Ask Warren Buffet to explain it to you.

    For those interested in various kinds of comparative analyses of education spending across the states try “A Compendium of State Education Rankings” done by the Legislative Research Commission of the state of Kentucky. Some interesting information emerges:
    Rank of CA of the 50 states  in spending per pupil in “Unadjusted Dollars:”                         27th.
    Rank of CA of the 50 states in spending per pupil in “Adjusted Dollars:”                                      46th
    (Dollars adjusted for geographic cost differences)
    Rank of CA of the 50 states in spending per pupil per $1,000 of personal income:                             38th

    CA remains the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation on this planet. The fact that tax dollars are “ever dwindling” is a result of a neglectful public policy agenda driven by a political process in thrall to the wealthy and corporations. The unions are doing things to correct that. There are more than enough dollars available to do what’s right by the state’s children. There is one only one response to the numbers above (27th/46th/38th), and that is: No excuses!

    And the “lower strata of society?” OMG!  What is this? A Colbert style parody of political “thought?” If so, LOL.

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  3. @Regis is looking at it all wrong.
    When I pay taxes, I’m not paying for the education of my current children. I’m paying the state back, with interest, for the education provided to ME.
    (And, that investment has paid off rather well for both the state and federal governments.)

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  4. Next time you buy a box of $2 strawberries, ask yourself exactly who are the philanthropists who make that possible.
    (As an exercise for the reader, figure out how much it costs in your time and in money to grow a pound of strawberries at home.)

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  5. I can only say “well done!” of the ruling. It is not the role of the judiciary to decide what is “adequate” to educate children in California. At least this judge understands the concept of separation of powers, even if the plaintiffs do not.

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  6. The major point of a free market system is that it’s just too difficult to figure out who really earned or deserves access to resources.  So I prefer to stay away from those types of argument.  But I will say that people who value giving in themselves and in society as a whole will live fundamentally different lives than those who don’t.

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  7. Gary,
    Thanks for your response.  Let’s get going here.  California is the ‘wealthiest’ state?   That must be why all the companies are leaving.  That’s why we had (or still have) a huge budget shortfall.  You say California is 27th in ‘unadjusted’ dollars (whatever that means), so why don’t we look at the real California State Budget.
    For the General Fund, K-12 education is 40% of the State Budget.  Higher Ed is 12 % of the same, for a combined total of 52%.  Then let’s add in Health and Human Services, because everybody expects the Government to take care of everything here.  Health and Human Services is 27% of the State Budget.  And don’t forget,  the prison costs, because that’s your taxpayer dollars at work.  You pay for them to have the kids (oh wait, the vulnerable ‘children), sit at home and collect an equivalent of $36K a year in State Benefits (look up the CalWorks benefit model 2009), add Section 8 and you’ve got taxpayer funding of about $50K a year. 

    Prison costs are about 11% of the General fund.  Add all of this up.  It is 90% for the Pregnancy to Prison Programs.   Now why don’t you look at the Taxpayer side of it?  Did you know that the Top 15% of the Taxpayers pay 85% of the Taxes?  Do the math and that means that 85% of the Taxpayers, pay 15% of the Taxes.

    Go here and see for yourself.

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  8. California is the wealthiest state.
    List of states by GDP in 2010:
    (rank, state, gdp, percent national gdp, population, gdp per capita, rank gdp per capita)



    New York



    Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis

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  9. If California is so wealthy, why are we ranked 7th in Personal Income? (table P37-P39 

    California’s largest manufacturers have fled the state.  The only growth is business with less than three employees.

    Table H1
    In 1990 there were 204 Manufacturing companies with 1,000 employees.  By 2006, there were only 104.  We lost nearly 50% of the biggest companies, that paid wages typical of large corporations.

    And while you’re at it, look at table D5 “Personal Income by Major Source and crunch the numbers.   The biggest income source is Government employees!   Government employees account for 19% of the total Personal Income in California!  The vast majority of that is State and Local employees.

    And let’s look at Demographics.  Let’s take the LAUSD for example.  78% of the School Population is Hispanic.  But most of the Hispanic community doesn’t pay nearly the amount of taxes that it costs to put their children to school.  The average cost per child in California is around $8,400.  They tend to have more kids and make less, so with three kids, that’s $25,000 a year cost to the Taxpayer. So you tell me how the black hole of School funding is going to continue? And let’s not forget the Free Lunches, Free Breakfasts and After School care!  Many of them are recieving Food Stamps and Section 8 as well.
    Take a look at the Census figures for 2000 and do the math for yourself.  A careful analysis of the population shows 24% of the Hispanic population makes less than $19K a year, 41% of the same makes less than $30K a year and 55% of the population makes less than $40K a year.  So there’s no way, that the biggest part of the population is even paying for what their taking out, because at that income level, they’re not paying State taxes and are in fact, getting money back from the Fed for each child.

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