California students, school districts and educational organizations filed a landmark lawsuit on May 20 against the state and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, saying that the current funding system for public schools is unconstitutional.
“Our premise says that California’s school finance system is broken and because of that it is unconstitutional,” said Frank Pugh, president of the California School Boards Association.
Among the plaintiffs of the lawsuit are San Francisco and Alameda unified school districts, several local schoolchildren, the California Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), the California school boards association and the association of California school administrators.
Legal representation is pro bono and partially provided by the Stanford Law School.
The lawsuit seeks to establish California’s current funding system as unconstitutional. If this is established, the judge will determine the next course of action and the entire funding system could potentially be overhauled.
“We are not asking the judge to determine a proper funding level,” Pugh said. “Just that our premise is valid. Then the state legislature would be required to figure it out.”
The main argument by the plaintiffs is that the state places high demands on public school students, such as academic standards and standardized tests required by the No Child Left Behind legislation, and does not back them up with adequate funding.
“Current funding doesn’t meet the demands the state has,” said Suzan Solomon, vice president of education for the California state PTA. “It creates an inequity.”
This is the first case of its kind in California, but several similar lawsuits have succeeded across the country. In New York, for example, a lawsuit resulted in billions more being allotted to schools.
Schwarzenegger’s office has issued a statement on the matter.
“The governor will oppose this lawsuit and believes the state will prevail,” said Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss in a statement to the press. “The funding of public education in California has long been and continues to be a top priority of California, even in bad economic and budget times.”
The lawsuit relies on Article 9 of the State Constitution, which requires the state to provide a “system of common schools”, and states that “from all state revenues there shall first be set apart” money for schools.
“We assert that the state prescribes [an] education program that districts are required to provide. But [the state] has failed to keep up and support that program or make any effort to identify and provide the actual cost of the program that it currently requires,” said Deborah Caplan, attorney for the California school boards association, the association of California school administrators, the PTA and the school districts.
“The requirement that there be a ‘system’ is violated because various parts of the public school structure (i.e., program, governance and finance) do not work together to meet the goals of the system.”
Frank Pugh said he is not hopeful that Schwarzenegger will agree with the claims in the lawsuit, but he is confident that the lawsuit will succeed.
“We expect the judge to agree that the system doesn’t make any sense,” Pugh said. “The governor has consistently not been helpful and has damaged the future of kids in our schools.”
Pugh called the current funding system “unsound, unstable, insufficient and irrational.”
Forty percent of the state budget is already allotted to schools through Proposition 98, which was passed in 1988.
“We are very optimistic. Everyone agrees that education is a fundamental right and that the current system doesn’t ensure that all students realize this right,” she said. “We believe that the courts will agree that this system does not meet the constitutional requirements.”
Schwarzenegger’s office has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit and either challenge it or address its claims.
“The whole country is watching because it’s California,” Solomon said. “California is a leading state when it comes to education policy. It will set a precedent.”
SARAH HANSEL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.