Another setback in funding lawsuitsPlaintiffs 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.