Big setback in Robles-Wong lawsuit

An Alameda County Superior Court judge has rejected the main claims in two lawsuits charging that the state’s “insufficient, irrational and unstable” school funding system violated children’s fundamental right to an education.

The ruling substantially restricts whether and how the case might go to trial. It is a setback to a coalition of powerful education groups – the California School Boards Association, the California Teachers Association, the state PTA, and the Association of California School Administrators – and attorneys for disadvantaged children. They had hoped the court would order the Legislature to adequately fund and reform how the state finances K-12 schools.

Instead, Judge Steven Brick ruled that the two articles in the state Constitution requiring state-supported education don’t require setting funding at any particular level. He also wrote that there is no equal protection right in the state Constitution for students harmed by inadequate funding, “however devastating the effects of such underfunding have been on the quality of public school education.” It is the Legislature’s and the people’s prerogative to determine what’s adequate.

Brick did leave open the possibility that attorneys in the two combined lawsuits – Robles-Wong v. California and Campaign for Quality Education v. California – could move forward with a narrower focus, and set a Feb. 14 deadline for filing an amended lawsuit. Its focus should be, he indicated, whether the state’s current funding provides an equal opportunity to meet success as defined by the state’s learning standards.  This would not be an adequacy case, whether there is sufficient funding, but instead an equity case – whether current funding is fairly and sensibly distributed to all students, especially disadvantaged children in under-resourced schools, in ways that meet the state’s education goals.

Bill Koski, a Stanford Law School professor who represented low-income students in Robles-Wong, said Friday that attorneys were disappointed “that the Court dismissed the children’s claim that the current irrational and insufficient school finance system has failed to deliver to our children that qualitative right to an education.”

Attorneys were reviewing their options: whether to amend or to appeal. “We will continue to vigorously challenge the State’s finance system on the grounds that it fails to deliver an equitable and sufficient education to our children,” he said in a statement.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys had argued that the basis for requiring sufficient funding can be found in Article IX of the Constitution, which required the Legislature to establish a “system of common schools” and to promote “intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural” knowledge. Another article, adopted later, said that the Legislature should first set aside money for public schools and universities.

But Brick said that the state Supreme Court already had examined and dismissed that argument. The case was the famous 1976 equity case, Serrano v. Priest, in which the court declared that a funding system based on property taxes was inequitable and unconstitutional. “The seminal decision of the Supreme Court in Serrano considered and rejected the argument that section 5 of article IX included any particular financing requirement,” Brick wrote.

Brick actually issued his ruling on Jan. 14, before the three-day holiday weekend. The plaintiffs’ lawyers did not announce the ruling, expecting that the Attorney General’s office would. After a week went by, they passed on the word. The Attorney General’s office still had nothing to say about the case as of  Friday (which I find strange), and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst told me that neither he nor Gov. Brown was prepared yet to comment.

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" (, 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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