Inequality in School Funding: The Legacy of the Serrano v. Priest Rulings in California and Beyond

It’s been half a century since the landmark Serrano v Priest court case that fundamentally reshaped school finance in California and beyond. It was the first time a school finance lawsuit was successful in challenging the state’s constitution.

In a 1971 decision, the California Supreme Court found that the school funding system violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court determined that California’s funding scheme discriminated against low-income students because it made the quality of a child’s education a function of the wealth of his or her parents and neighbors.

Fifty years on, as California policymakers continue to struggle with questions of how to provide a more equitable education to all of California’s children, what can we learn from the past to help us reimagine the future of school finance?

Please join us for a unique event with an illustrious panel of local and national experts with diverse perspectives. (Scroll down for more details on the speakers.)

Panelists will discuss the hopes and goals of the original court case in the context of California’s current system, look at how other states fund their schools and discuss what more needs to be done to achieve the vision of truly fair and equitable school finance.

This symposium is sponsored by the Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance (CEPEG) at the USC Rossier School of Education and EdSource.  In an interesting historical note, EdSource was founded in 1977,  when the final of three rulings in the case was issued, to educate Californians about its significance for the state and the nation.

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Bruce Baker

Professor, Rutgers University

Bruce D. Baker, Ed.D. is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. His most recent book Educational Inequality and School Finance is available through Harvard Education Press Group.

Maria Brenes

Executive Director, InnerCity Struggle

Maria Brenes has led InnerCity Struggle since since 2002. Over the last decade, InnerCity Struggle has educated and mobilized thousands of Latinx parents and students in the Eastside of Los Angeles, ensuring greater civic participation and community action.

Brenes’ work with InnerCity Struggle has resulted in a wide range of improvements within Eastside schools as well as schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District. In the last few years, Maria’s leadership has helped win several breakthrough victories; new schools for the Eastside, a district-wide policy focused on preparing all students for college, increased funds for high-need schools, smaller learning environments in Eastside high schools and an expansion of school-based health services.

Brenes has received various leadership awards, including from the newspaper La Opinion, UC Berkeley’s Chicano/Latino Alumni Association of Southern California and the Latina Lawyers Association.

Sid Wolinsky

Serrano plaintiff lawyer

Sid Wolinsky was lead plaintiffs counsel at both the trial and appellate level in Serrano I, II, and III. He is the cofounder and, until his retirement in 2019, was the Director of Litigation at Disability Rights Advocates (DRA). DRA, with offices in Berkeley and Manhattan, has filed hundreds of successful civil rights class action lawsuits nationwide on behalf of people with all disabilities.

Many of these have been the first of their kind in the country. He is the recipient of the California state bar’s highest award for lifetime contribution to legal services and has been twice named California Lawyer of the Year. A Yale Law School graduate, he is also the cofounder of Public Advocates, a nonprofit legal center focused on economic and racial justice. He has been an adjunct faculty member at UC Berkeley and UC Davis and has twice served as a Senior Fulbright Scholar (in Hungary and Malaysia). He is the author of several publications on disability and civil rights and is a frequent consultant to both national and international advocacy organization.

John Coons

Professor of Law (Emeritus), Berkeley Law

John (Jack) Coons played a seminal role in the Serrano-Priest court cases. Along with Stephen Sugarman, a colleague at the Boalt Hall School of Law (now Berkeley Law), he helped developed the equal protection theory that was the basis for the court challenge.

He received his B.A. at the University of Minnesota, Duluth and graduated from Northwestern Law School. He joined the Berkeley Law faculty in 1968.

With Sugarman, he has co-authored several books, including Private Wealth and Public Education (1970), Education by Choice (1978), Scholarships for Children(1992), and, most recently, Making School Choice Work for all Families (1999). He has also published By Nature Equal: The Anatomy of a Western Insight (with Brennan, 1999).

Oscar Jiménez-Castellanos

Professor, Trinity & Visiting Scholar, USC Rossier School of Education

Oscar Jiménez-Castellanos, Ph.D., is Chair of the Department of Education and Murchison Endowed Professor of Education at Trinity University. He also serves as Executive Director of the Center for Educational Leadership and is a visiting scholar at USC Rossier School of Education.

Previously, Jiménez-Castellanos was associate professor and Founding Director of the Latinx education research center at Santa Clara University. He also served as a visiting scholar in 2016-17 at University of California, Berkeley and affiliated with the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) at Stanford University. He began his academic career at Arizona State University where he served as assistant professor and associate professor.

Celina Moreno

President and CEO, Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA)

Celina Moreno, J.D., is the president and CEO of the Intercultural Development Research Association, a national non-profit organization dedicated to equity and excellence in education. IDRA strengthens and transforms public education by providing dynamic training; useful research, evaluation, and frameworks for action; timely policy analyses; and innovative materials and student and parent leadership programs.

Ms. Moreno is an invited member of the Texas 2036 Advisory Committee on Maximizing Education Resources for Texas 2036’s Education Resource Project. She previously served as the Interim Southwest Regional Counsel for MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization. At MALDEF, she successfully represented DREAMers to defend DACA and against a separate lawsuit that would have invalidated the Texas DREAM Act.

She received a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School (focusing on education), a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and a law degree from the University of Houston. In her hometown of San Antonio, she was appointed to the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women and the board of the Martinez Street Women’s Center, a non-profit seeking to empower women and girls. She currently serves on the advisory council of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and on the board of the San Antonio Public Library Foundation.

Lawrence Picus

Associate Dean and Professor, USC Rossier School of Education

Lawrence O. Picus is Richard T. Cooper and Mary Catherine Cooper Chair in Public School Administration at the USC Rossier School of Education. He is an expert in the area of public financing of schools, equity and adequacy of school funding, school business administration, education policy, linking school resources to student performance and resource allocation in schools.

His current research interests focus on adequacy and equity in school finance as well as efficiency and productivity in the provision of educational programs for PreK-12 school children. Picus is past-president of the Association for Education Finance & Policy. He was a member of the EdSource Board of Directors for 12 years. Picus’ most recent books include: School Finance: A Policy Perspective 4th Edition (2008) with Allan Odden; In Search of More Productive Schools: A Guide to Resource Allocation in Education, published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management in January, 2001; and Developing Community Empowered Schools (Corwin, 2001), coauthored with Mary Ann Burke. He has also published numerous articles in professional journals. Picus has consulted extensively on school finance issues in more than 20 states, and conducted adequacy studies in Arkansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Wyoming, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Washington.

Michael Rebell

Professor, Teachers College, Columbia University

Michael A. Rebell is a professor of practice in law and educational policy and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, at Columbia University.

He was the co-founder, executive director and counsel for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. In CFE v. State of New York, the Court of Appeals declared that all children are entitled under the state Constitution to the “opportunity for a sound basic education” and it ordered the State of New York to reform its education finance system to meet these constitutional requirements. He is currently lead counsel for plaintiffs in Cook v. Raimondo (pending, U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit), a case that seeks to establish a right to an education adequate for capable citizenship under the U.S. Constitution. He is also co-counsel for plaintiffs in NYSER v. State of New York, an education adequacy case that is currently pending in the New York State Supreme Court.

He also serves as the Executive Director of the Schoolfunding.Info network, based at Teachers College; which maintains a research website that provides up-to-date information on the status of litigations and education finance reform in all 50 states.

Rebell earned his J.D. from Yale Law School and his B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard College.

Darline Robles

Moderator; Associate Dean and CEPEG Co-Director, USC Rossier School of Education

Darline P. Robles is currently an Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion and a Professor of Clinical Education at the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California.

Robles retired after serving eight years as the first Latina County superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), the nation’s largest regional service agency.  LACOE serves more than two million preschool and school-age children, of whom 60% are Latino.  As chief of the Salt Lake City School District from 1995-2002, she was recognized for raising student achievement. Prior to her position in Salt Lake City School District she served as superintendent of the Montebello Unified School District in California, where she began her teaching career. While superintendent, she saved the district from a state take-over. Her career has focused on serving the underserved students and inspiring and mentoring young Latino educators.

Robles is a co-author of the recently published book, A Culturally Proficient Society Begins in School: Leadership for Equity and a leadership consultant to school districts and non-profit organizations.

Robles holds a B.A. from California State University at Los Angeles, an M.A. from Claremont Graduate School and a Ph.D from the University of Southern California.

Louis Freedberg

Moderator; Executive Director, EdSource

Louis Freedberg is the executive director of EdSource, the leading news organization reporting on education in California. Originally known as the Coalition for Fair School Finance, the organization was founded in 1977 to explain the Serrano-Priest rulings to the California public.

Before coming to EdSource a decade ago, Freedberg was the founding director of California Watch, a pioneering nonprofit journalism venture. Prior to that, he spent 15 years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was an award-winning education reporter, Washington correspondent, columnist, and member of the editorial board.  He has been a freelance education reporter for the New York Times, and numerous other publications.

As a graduate student in the 1970s, he was staff social scientist with the Childhood and Government Project at Boalt Hall. At the time, he was associated with both Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman who were working with the project when they in the middle of litigating Serrano-Priest. Freedberg  has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley and a B.A. in developmental psychology from Yale University.