Appeal filed in state school funding case

Appeal filed in state school funding case

Michele Ellson

A coalition of families, school districts and nonprofit groups that includes Alameda Unified and several Alameda students has appealed a local court’s dismissal of a 2010 lawsuit aimed at overhauling the state’s school funding system.

Plaintiffs in the case, Robles-Wong vs. State of California, are telling a state appellate court they think California’s public school students have a constitutional right to a quality education and that the state is violating that right by failing to provide a rational, coherent funding system to support it.

They are also arguing the state is failing in its duties under the state constitution to properly maintain California’s school system.

“That failure not only threatens the future of those children, it endangers the economic, civic and social well-being of the State,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote.

They want the appeals court to reverse a trial court judge’s decision to dismiss the case, a move that would restart proceedings at the trial court level. A reply brief is due from the state in October.

The case has been combined with a second 2010 suit that made similar claims but focused more closely on the needs of low-income students and their families. The California Teachers Association is also part of the combined case.

In a pair of 2011 rulings, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steven A. Brick said that while state funding losses may be “devastating” to schools, California’s constitution doesn’t mandate funding levels. And he said plaintiffs in the Robles-Wong case failed to demonstrate the specific harm a lack of state funding had caused.

Lawyers from the state Attorney General’s office had argued that plaintiffs in the case were seeking increased funding for schools, something they said the courts had no right to compel them to provide. They claimed the voter-approved Proposition 98, which requires lawmakers to set aside a certain percentage of the state’s general fund for schools, trumped any other constitutional concerns.

In their appeal, attorneys for the plaintiffs in both cases said they aren’t asking the courts to specify funding levels; they want the court to mandate and oversee an overhaul of California’s school funding system, aligned to state standards detailing what students should be learning.

Still, they said California fails to provide the resources needed to meet the learning standards its leaders set, offering some of the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation and fewer teachers, librarians and counselors per student than almost every other state – a situation that has worsened over the last few years as the state has cut billions in school funding to balance its budget.

The lack of funding means schools barely have enough money to pay for English and math instruction mandated by the standards; programs and services needed to support students’ educational success are cut. Alameda Unified, for example, has just one nurse for the entire district and can’t offer mental health services to support non-special education students, it said.

The result, they said, is a level of achievement that’s lower than almost every other state, and lower still for students in some race and ethnic groups. Nearly 40 percent of the state’s schools and school districts are facing sanctions that could include school closures for failing to meet test score targets, the brief said.

“In sum, although the State holds districts, schools and students accountable for their performance on the state standards, the State at the same time denies them the educational resources necessary to ensure the opportunity to achieve success on those very same standards,” the brief said.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys said California’s courts have established students’ constitutional right to a quality education and that courts in 22 other states have upheld similar claims to the ones made in their case, though the state’s lawyers had listed courts in other states that denied such claims.

Rob Siltanen, a senior program manager overseeing Alameda Unified’s Measure A parcel tax whose children are plaintiffs in the suit and who was heavily involved in early efforts to launch it, told the school board during a June 26 update on the case that the state’s funding problems have only worsened in the two years since it was filed.

“We’re very confident our legal case is going to demonstrate that the system is unconstitutional,” said Siltanen, who told the board the case could take 10 to 12 years to resolve.

Susan Davis, whose children are also plaintiffs in the suit, said ongoing state funding issues have been overarching a string of local struggles that have included a trio of local school parcel tax efforts and unsuccessful lawsuits aimed at nullifying them, and testy negotiations between the school district’s leaders and its teachers. And she said things will get worse if voters don’t approve tax increases for schools on the state ballot this fall.

“(T)he state funding hasn't changed. If anything, it's gotten worse. And if those tax initiatives don't pass in November, it's going to get way worse,” Davis said.