Appeals Court denies constitutional right to minimum K-12 funding

April 20, 2016

The state Constitution does not guarantee children in California a minimally funded quality education, a divided California Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday in a landmark decision closely watched by proponents of more K-12 spending.

The 2-1 decision on two six-year-old lawsuits denies the California School Boards Association and student advocacy groups the right to a trial to make the case that underfunding by the Legislature is denying students the quality education they’re entitled to. The plaintiffs immediately said they would appeal the ruling to the California Supreme Court.

The San Francisco-based 1st District Court of Appeal ruled on separate but related lawsuits filed in 2010: Campaign for Quality Education v. State of California, filed by Public Advocates on behalf of five nonprofits serving low-income, minority families, and Robles-Wong et al. v. State of California, jointly filed by the school boards association, the state PTA, the Association of California School Administrators and the California Teachers Association, together with Stanford Law Professor William Koski, representing low-income children.

Both lawsuits argued that the state’s “insufficient, irrational and unstable” school funding system failed to provide students their constitutional right to a quality education. The Legislature spelled out what that entails by imposing graduation requirements, rigorous academic standards and other mandates, but didn’t provide school districts with enough resources to meet the demands, the lawsuit argued.

In his majority decision, Associate Justice Martin Jenkins acknowledged children’s fundamental right to an education, which the 137-year-old state Constitution broadly defines as the obligation to “encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement.” But the Constitution doesn’t include a requirement for a minimum quality level of education for schoolchildren, Jenkins wrote, or a minimum level of expenditures for education.

“We agree wholeheartedly with appellants that the provision of a quality education for all public school students is an important goal for society,” he wrote, but it’s the Legislature’s prerogative to determine what quality means. Jenkins quoted a school funding decision from Illinois that said judges lack the expertise to set appropriate levels of school funding; assuming that responsibility would preempt the public’s right, through open dialogue with elected officials, to do so.

In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Peter Siggins wrote, “As much as I can appreciate the plaintiffs’ frustration and dissatisfaction with the overall adequacy of California’s public schools, and recognize our Legislature’s challenges in adequately funding schools to meet the standards it sets, I cannot agree” that the Constitution provides a right to “command the state to fund schools at some qualitative level.” If large numbers of students are underachieving, there are other legal remedies without expanding a constitutional right, he said.

But in his dissent, Associate Justice Stuart Pollak disagreed with the conclusion that there is no minimum requirement to support schools. The Constitution’s mandate to provide education “implies the need to maintain public schools at some minimum level of competence,” he wrote. Not only do the courts have a responsibility to determine whether the allegations of minimum funding are valid, but “the courts are capable of fulfilling that responsibility,” and providing “meaningful relief” if needed, he stated.

Both lawsuits were filed at a time of big state budget cuts for education, and the court of appeal considered only the arguments in the briefs presented to Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steven Brick in 2010. Since then, the Legislature has restored most of the funding lost during the recession and adopted challenging academic standards – the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards. Pollak alluded to the changing circumstances in writing: “Should these actions proceed to trial, the focus would of course be on current conditions to the extent that relevant data is available. Nonetheless, despite changes – hopefully improvements – that have occurred more recently, the fundamental issues raised by the complaints remain.”

California’s Constitution “requires a system that provides students with a meaningful basic education in reality as well as on paper,” he wrote.

John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, said in an interview that even after restoring lost revenue, California will remain the lowest in the nation in per-student staffing levels, and the Legislature has not sufficiently provided enough funding to deliver quality academic standards for all students.

He said that he and the other plaintiffs disagree with the majority opinion that a fundamental right doesn’t guarantee “a minimum quality.” That right would be hollow without it, he said.

Confirming that the plaintiffs in Robles-Wong will also appeal the decision, California School Boards Association CEO & Executive Director Vernon Billy said in a statement, “Today’s decision is truly disappointing for California’s students and families. We firmly believe all students in California have a fundamental right to an education that meets the standards the state has set – and that is currently being denied to many, especially low-income students and students of color.”

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