Credit: California School Boards Association
Plaintiffs in the Robles-Wong v. State of California lawsuit announce the case at a press conference in Sacramento on May 20, 2010.

As they presented oral arguments before an appellate court Wednesday, attorneys in a high-profile lawsuit hoped that justices will allow them to go to trial to prove that by inadequately funding public schools the state is violating California students’ constitutional right to a quality education.

The three justices on the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco must rule within the next 90 days on whether to overturn a ruling by an Alameda County Superior Court judge who dismissed the case, Robles-Wong v. California, on grounds that there’s no constitutional right to an adequately funded education. In that ruling, Judge Steven Brick said the Legislature has the right to set funding levels as it chooses.

The case consolidates two lawsuits filed in 2010 — Campaign for Quality Education v. California and the Robles-Wong case.

In a session lasting more than an hour, justices on the court focused on the issue in the lawsuits’ core claim, that insufficient funding levels are denying children their constitutional right to an education that prepares them to participate fully in economic and civil life.

The justices focused on the key idea of the concept of quality, while the attorney for the state, Joshua Sondheimer, said the state does not oversee quality.

Steven Mayer, an attorney for the plaintiffs in Robles-Wong, told the justices that the state Supreme Court has held that education is a constitutional right in the state, “and a violation of that right has occurred.”

The Legislature defines quality education in establishing high academic standards but it hasn’t provided enough funding so that all students can meet those standards, Mayer said.

While a ruling by the three justices won’t be issued for several weeks, it could be groundbreaking if the justices decide that a quality education is constitutionally guaranteed.

Justice Peter Siggins acknowledged that under the state’s current system there is “a disparity of opportunity” for students.

Mayer said that a minimal level of state funding, which Proposition 98 guarantees, doesn’t ensure quality education.

“We can’t have a system where half the students are not proficient,” Mayer argued, and pointed out that California students consistently rank near the bottom of the nation in academic performance. Furthermore, more funding, not simply redistributing funding, is needed, he added.

Sondheimer argued that there is “no qualitative level for education in the state Constitution.”

That prompted Justice Martin Jenkins to assert that “there must be a qualitative element in every classroom.”

Plaintiffs in the Robles case are the California School Boards Association, the state PTA, the association of California School Administrators, the California Teachers Association, the Youth & Education Law Project at Stanford Law School and 60 individuals, including the lead plaintiff, Maya Robles-Wong, who was a junior at Alameda High School when the suits were filed. The Campaign for Quality Education suit was filed by Public Advocates Inc., which represented five nonprofits serving low-income, minority families.  

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steven Brick dismissed both lawsuits in December 2011. In his rulings, Brick acknowledged students’ fundamental right to an education, but he said the state Constitution does not require the Legislature to fund public education at a specific level. The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the state appeals court in San Francisco, and the court combined the two lawsuits into one.

Last week, the California School Boards Association released a report on public school spending levels. The new figures updated the ones based on decade-old published studies, which the association submitted as evidence in the Robles case.

The new report asserts that the $64 billion that Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to spend on K-12 schools in the 2016-2017 school year to implement the Common Core, other state standards and to fulfill the eight priorities of the Local Control Funding Formula, would fall tens of billions of dollars short of what is needed for the state to ensure that every child has access to quality learning.

John Fensterwald contributed to this report.

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