California’s Substantially Underfunded Public Education System

20 Apr
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by Keith Bray

A remarkable thing happened this past January in San Francisco. In the First District Court of Appeals, the attorney representing school boards, administrators, parents, students and community groups and the Deputy Attorney General representing the state of California argued the merits of Robles-Wong v. California.

After waiting almost four years to make its case that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional, plaintiffs in Robles-Wong argued that the state is failing to support, much less maintain, a public school system that adequately prepares its students to participate in economic and civic life.

As argued by the plaintiffs before the court of appeals, the state has no idea what the cost is of its K-12 education program. What is clear is that the state’s underfunding of education is underscored by its students-per-teacher ratio ranking of 49th in the nation.

Back in March of 2012, the plaintiffs, which include CSBA and CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance, opened their appellate brief with the following statement that captures the basis for challenging the state’s lackluster effort to support the public school children of this state:

“There are more than six million school children in California today. The State is failing to provide far too many of them the opportunity for an education they need to succeed in the 21st century. That failure not only threatens the future of those children, it endangers the economic, civic and social well-being of the State. The State’s failure is not merely a public policy issue, it is a denial of the fundamental right to an education guaranteed by the California Constitution.”

As argued by the plaintiffs before the court of appeals, the state has no idea what the cost is of its K-12 education program. What is clear is that the state’s underfunding of education is underscored by its students-per-teacher ratio ranking of 49th in the nation. California would have to hire 237,000 educators and instructional aides just to meet the national average. Moreover, although California has 1.4 million more students than Texas, California has 42,000 fewer teachers staffing our classrooms than the Lone Star state.

As both sides argued their positions, the justices’ questions sought to connect the state’s demonstrable failure to provide funding to educate enough of its students to meet the standards and outcomes it has set for its students to an articulable constitutional standard to which the state should be held by the judiciary to meet. The justices’ comments about low student achievement statewide, and about California’s low staffing levels, clearly indicated their concerns about the condition of public education in California.

These same concerns were articulated in the CSBA ELA committee report, “California’s Challenge: Adequately Funding Education in the 21st Century.” Citing the increasing requirements imposed by the state’s new student performance standards, and the multiple state priorities related to Local Control and Accountability Plans, the committee reported that the state continues to underfund its mandates for education programs to the tune of $23 to $42 billion dollars.

The committee also reported that inadequate funding, when combined with increased costs — including CalSTRS and CalPERS unfunded liabilities and the new student assessment technology requirements — will result in a perfect storm for school districts and county offices of education. It is these same districts and COEs that are charged with equipping all students with 21st century skills and knowledge they need for the next steps in their education and/or careers after graduation.

It is disappointing that the plaintiffs’ opening comments written four years ago still ring true today. Everyone involved with this constitutional challenge in support of California’s public school children is counting on the court of appeals to return this case back to the trial court. There, the constitutionally based arguments raised by the plaintiffs about whether the state’s finance system is a key contributor to student achievement, to opportunity gaps and to school staffing shortages, may finally be tried in a court of law. Without judicial action, the hard questions that have been avoided by state lawmakers since Proposition 13 pushed California out of the top 10 and into the bottom of the national rankings in per-pupil funding, will continue to go unasked and unanswered.

The appellate court is expected to issue its opinion in late April. Please check CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance Web page to get the most updated information on this very important court case.

Keith Bray, CSBA General CounselKeith J. Bray  is Director of the Education Legal Alliance and CSBA General Counsel.

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