California Lawsuit Challenges School Funding System

Last Updated: June 25, 2010

This article appeared in the June 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

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A new funding lawsuit has been filed in California challenging the school finance system as unconstitutional. California schools have seen $17 billion in cuts in two years. The lawsuit says that the state should determine what it takes to fund required programs and to meet student needs, and it asks the court to require that the state develop a new funding formula.

Plaintiffs include the California School Board Association, the California State PTA, nine school districts — including two rural districts, and 60 individual plaintiffs. The lead plaintiff is 16-year-old Maya Robles-Wong, a high-school student from Alameda where the suit was filed. The State Superintendent of Education also supports the lawsuit.

California is currently 47th in per-pupil spending when adjusted for regional cost differences. A 2007 study showed that California needs to spend 40% more to ensure students can meet state standards.

The suit could bring changes to Proposition 13 and Proposition 98, two amendments to California’s constitution that significantly altered revenue sources and school funding. Proposition 13 lowered and limited property taxes and centralized funding for schools. Proposition 98 set a required minimum level of funding, but it has been suspended during times of budget shortfall. The state has thirty days to respond to the suit, which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised to fight.

Another coalition sent a letter to the Governor asking for an overhaul of the state finance system and promising to sue the state if there is no response. Attorneys from Public Advocates Incorporated, who represent the Campaign for Quality Education, Californians for Justice, and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, wrote Schwarzenegger and gave him two weeks to avoid a second lawsuit.

The letter also reminds the Governor of his precedent in working together on school funding issues when he settled a previous school finance lawsuit, Williams v. California, which was also brought by Public Advocates attorneys. In addition, the letter delineates the efforts the coalition made in the legislature and through grass roots organizations to change the school finance system. And, it notes Schwarzenegger’s veto of the bipartisan bill, AB 8, which Public Advocates sponsored and shepherded to passage and which would have established a working group to propose a new funding formula.

Public Advocates timed their demand letter to coincide with the filing of the Robles-Wong action, and it makes the same demands as the lawsuit. Representatives of the coalition met with the organizations bringing the lawsuit and planned this strategy so that the low-income community they represent would have a separate seat at the table if the actions are combined. Public Advocates has commended Robles-Wong as the “work of education professionals fighting for change.”

Read more:

News coverage of the lawsuit:

State Superintendent Jack O’Connell’s Statement:

California School Finance Website

Public Advocate’s Letter

Campaign for Quality Education:

Read more from the June 2010 Rural Policy Matters.