Dismissal motion for Robles-Wong

Lawyers for education groups and low-income students say they are confident that, if given the chance, they would prove that California’s school funding system is irrational and insufficient and therefore that the state should be forced to redesign and fund it. ­

But first, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steven Brick must rule that the two  lawsuits – Robles-Wong v California and Campaign for Quality Education v California – can  go to trial. And during two hours of arguments on Friday, a sometimes skeptical Brick indicated that he needed to be convinced of the constitutional imperative to allow the lawsuits to proceed. A poorly funded K-12 school system is not by itself sufficient rationale, he implied.

The critical hearing was on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuits brought by the California School Boards Assn., the Association of California School Administrators, the state PTA, and lawyers for some low-income students (Robles-Wong) and other minority and low-income families represented by Public Advocates (Campaign for Quality Education).

In very broad language, two sections in Article IX of the state Constitution and subsequent State Supreme Court decisions have affirmed public education as a fundamental right and the creation of a statewide system of public schools as a legislative priority. The plaintiffs argue that to meet the obligation to produce “informed and productive members of society,” the state created a system of rigorous academic standards for all grades. But it has failed to fund what it needed to give students – especially minority and low-income kids – an equal opportunity to  master those standards.

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The Ed Coalition’s suit, Robles-Wong v California, is named for the first plaintiff listed in the suit, Maya Robles-Wong, an articulate senior at Alameda High School. Click here to listen to her in a short interview that I made at the court hearing on Friday. Later that afternoon, Maya was notified she was accepted at Wellesley College, her first choice. (Rather than undermine the claims of the lawsuit, her admission to an elite college is a tribute to an exceptional student who cares about educational opportunities for all students.)

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“California’s school finance system is based on formulas and policies cobbled together over the decades and bears no relation to the current educational needs of students,” the lawyers argue in their latest brief.

The fundamental level of education is insufficient because of the funding system, said Public Advocates managing attorney John Affeldt, one of several plaintiffs lawyers who  argued on Friday. “The court needs to find that the system must be corrected and ordered fixed.”

But Deputy Attorney General Pauline Gee, defending the state, argued that the lawsuits named the wrong party in the wrong court without basis. There’s nothing in the Constitution or case law, Gee said, that requires the Legislature to fund at a specified level – other than defined by Proposition 98. The court would be overstepping its bounds to supersede the prerogative of the Legislature and voters.

“There is no  constitutional mandate that imposes a duty to require the Legislature” to fund at a level aligned with academic requirement,  Gee said. “You  cannot use standards that are constantly changing,” a reference to  the recent adoption of Common Core standards. “What are factors that result in higher achievement? Money alone will not  satisfy that.”

Gee also said that if the Legislature has imposed requirements that it has not funded, then plaintiffs – or at least school districts – should have made their case to the Commission on State Mandates – something they haven’t done.

Noting that Proposition 98 allows the state to suspend minimum funding with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, Brick asked whether the obligation to fund a fundamental right means that state doesn’t get to fund other priorities, like fighting forest fires?

Plaintiffs’ lawyers responded that passage in 1988 of Proposition 98, which both sides acknowledge set a minimum funding level, preceded the creation of state academic standards and doesn’t replace the Legislature’s obligation to fulfill  a fundamental right.

Stanford Law School professor Bill Koski, an attorney for Robles-Wong families, said that English learners, economically disadvantaged and minority students especially do not get resources based on statewide standards.

Finance lawsuits in other states have drawn courts into protracted litigation. That no doubt was on Brick’s mind when he pressed plaintiffs lawyers on precisely what they were seeking – simply a declaration that the current inefficient funding system is the issue or that insufficient money is the problem.

“We are not asking court to order to spend X billion or 2 times X billion dollars but to recognize right to qualitative education has been denied because of the funding system,” Affeldt said.

Noting that Affeldt said that the system is inadequate and inequitable, Brick pressed further: Suppose the court rules that the case is confined to one or the other.

Affeldt responded that this case would be no different from other constitutional litigation, such as over medical care in state prisons. The state cannot separate out the issue of money in ordering the state to fix prisons, he said.

Even though school districts, through the school boards association, are a party to Robles-Wong, Brick asked whether districts themselves should be the defendants for their failure to allocate resources properly to meet students’ needs.

But Affeldt said the fault doesn’t lie with districts. “We are claiming that state’s inaction and policies – and disparities in funding – deny fundamental right to an equal education.”

Brick indicated he would rule next month on the state’s dismissal motion, called a demurrer.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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