Finding meaning in California’s constitutional guarantee of education

by Keith Bray

All children can succeed, but not all children have equal opportunity to do so. A child’s background and social station continue to play an inordinate role in his or her scholastic outcomes, both in California and across the nation. Schools, given the right circumstances, have the ability to disrupt this pattern of inequality, but may only do so if they are adequately and equitably resourced.

In Robles-Wong v. California,(2016) 246 Cal. App. 4th 896, the California School Boards Association and its fellow plaintiffs argued that the state’s education finance system violates Article IX of the California Constitution. There is ample evidence that the state’s education finance system is falling way short of meeting its constitutional obligation to provide all students — regardless of their background — access to an education that helps prepare them to participate in our economy and in our democratic institutions.

A recent Stanford University study reviewed roughly 200,000 standardized test scores taken by third through eighth grade students in California and across the nation and compared their scores with their demographic and socio-economic data. The researchers found that the achievement gaps amongst the most disadvantaged students were largely related to their household income, parental education, racial/ethnic background and segregation.

“The opportunity gap has very real and substantial effects on the lives of California students…”

The Stanford study exposes the impact that poverty and race have on widening the opportunity gaps in public education. For example, students in the poorest districts scored on average more than four grade levels below students in the wealthiest districts. A contributing factor to these gaps was the finding that children from wealthy households, many of whom scored above grade level, were financially able to participate in enrichment activities that children from families of lesser means could not afford.

The opportunity gap has very real and substantial effects on the lives of California students as illustrated in a 2015 paper by University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University researchers published in “The Quarterly Journal of Economics.” In “The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms,” the authors found increased spending had “small effects for affluent families,” but for low income children, “a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school is associated with 0. 46 more additional years of completed years of education, 9. 6 percent higher earnings, and a 6.1 percentage point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.”

California’s most recent standardized test results embody the opportunity gap experienced by low-income students nationwide. Last year, 79 percent of students from economically disadvantaged households in California tested below state standards in Math compared to 48 percent of students from less disadvantaged households. In English Language Arts, the gap in student test scores based upon economic status was 34 percent. So what are education leaders doing about closing the opportunity gap?

Six years ago CSBA helped lead the charge for equity and adequate funding by filing Robles-Wong v. California.California’s per-pupil spending, adjusted for regional cost differences, ranked 49th in the country when the lawsuit was filed in 2010, and has remained within the bottom six states through the latest available data from 2013. Notably, the state has never estimated the cost of its public education system: a system with increasing local costs fueled by state-mandated academic content standards and underfunded pension liabilities.

In April, the appellate court in Robles-Wong reaffirmed that children have a fundamental right to education in California, but held this constitutional right did not extend beyond the state establishing a school system that children can attend for free. The court in a 2–1 decision found nothing in the constitution that could even imply California’s children must be provided “some minimum qualitative level of education.” Even though the Legislature has been on the hook since 1857 to keep and support a “system of common public schools,” the court found the Legislature has no constitutional duty to fund education at any “minimum level of expenditures” or at any “particular standard of achievement.”

Article IX provides that the public school system established and funded by the Legislature shall “encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement.” Justice Pollak in his dissent argued that for this provision to have any meaning, the state’s school system “must provide some minimum qualitative level of education … in reality as well as on paper.” Justice Pollak also argued the judiciary has a constitutional duty to oversee the “proficiency” of the system because “the specifics of the system prescribed by the Legislature do not necessarily create a system that provides students with a minimally basic education.”

In order for the fundamental right to education to mean something for every child, the California Supreme Court will have to agree to take up the case on appeal, and unlike the appellate court, decide to send the case back to the Superior Court for trial. However, if the plaintiff’s petition for review is denied, there will be no trial and students from low-income families will continue to experience adverse impacts on their opportunity to access a meaningful public education.

Please check CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance webpage to get the most updated information on this very important court case.

This article originally appeared in the California Schools magazine summer 2016 issue.

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