Dubious suit for more ed cash

JULY 19, 2010

By JOHN SEILER

On July 12, a coalition of school activist groups sued the state of California, alleging low state funding and low-performance in the state’s public schools. It cited the California Constitution’s guarantee of a decent education for every student. Article XVI, Section 8(a) requires the state to “first . . . set apart the moneys to be applied by the state for support of the public school system and public institutions of higher education.”

And the coalition cited Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence, which found the state’s schools “not equitable; … not efficient, and … not sufficient for students who face the greatest challenges.” The suit demands that the state establish a new, equitable financial system.

The suit will be heard in the Superior Court of the City and County of Alameda. The lead plaintiff is the Campaign for Quality Education. Others plaintiffs include the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Californians for Justice and the San Francisco Organizing Project.

Lead attorneys for the plaintiffs are Public Advocates, Inc. The firm’s managing attorney, John Affeldt, described the lawsuit:

Since California was founded, our constitution has recognized public education as the State’s highest and most necessary duty. We’re filing this suit to force the State to live up to its founding promise to invest in our most valuable asset—the human potential of Californians. With funding for education at historic lows, we’re bleeding away tremendous reserves of student potential and with it the future prosperity and well-being of the state.

The lawsuit was launched in the middle of the state’s worst budget crisis ever. The state budget for fiscal 2010-11 is far from being passed more than two weeks into the new fiscal year. And a $19 billion deficit hangs over the budget itself.

The lawsuit’s complaint also noted the dismal performance of California schools:

In 2008, for example, fewer than half of California students demonstrated proficiency in English-Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and History-Social Science. Of the 549,486 students who began high school in 2004-05, nearly one-third (173,093 students) failed to graduate from high school four years later. And just one in four of those students graduated having successfully completed the course requirements needed to even apply for admission to California’s four-year public universities.

The California  Budget Project

The lawsuit comes shortly after a new study by the California Budget Project (CBP), “Race to the Bottom? California’s Support for Schools Lags the Nation.” It found:

By almost any measure California ranks near or at the bottom with respect to funding for public schools relative to other states…. California’s spending for public education has generally lagged that of the nation.

[California] Ranked 46th in education spending as a percentage of personal income [for 2008-09] – a measure that reflects the size of a state’s economy and the resources available to support public services. To reach the level of the rest of the US, California would have had to spend an additional $15.3 billion on education in 2008-09, an increase of 29.5 percent.

CPB also found that K-12 spending in 2009-10 was just $8,826 per pupil, less than the $11,372 national average. Its data were based on numbers from the National Education Association union.

Different budget numbers

“That’s just not true,” Lance Izumi told me of the budget numbers used in both the lawsuit and the CBP study; he’s Koret Senior Fellow in Education Studies and Senior Director, Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute, CalWatchDog.com’s parent institute.

He said better numbers come from the U.S. Census Bureau, whose data for 2007-08 were released earlier this year. Data for 2008-09 are expected to come later this year.

He pointed out that, on two key indicators, the Golden State actually tops the median among the 50 states. For total spending per pupil – which includes instruction costs such as staff and administrative costs and benefits – California is 23rd. The number spent was $9.863, just a little below $10,259, the national average.

It also was higher than most Western states: Colorado, Oregon, Arizona and Washington. But there’s more. Izumi said we also have to include all revenues going to schools, including “construction and maintenance costs.” He said this is essential because, “if lots of immigrants are coming into a state, building is a cost. It’s not just teacher and administrator costs.” California, obviously, fits that category because of its large number of recent immigrants.

But if we look at another number, for all revenues, then for 2007-08, California ranks a decent 21st. He said that means about 60 percent of American states rank below California in total revenues per pupil. California in that year spent $11,649, close to the average (not the median) for the nation of $12,028. (The Excel spreadsheet of the data are at the Census Website here. In the “Table of Contents,” click on “11. States Ranked According to Per Pupil Elementary-Secondary Public School System Finance Amounts: 2007-08.”)

California’s numbers compared to some others:

$12,028 – U.S average

$11,649 – California

Western states

$10,743 – Oregon

$10,116 – Nevada

$10,063 – Texas

$10,051 – Colorado

$9,205 – Arizona

$7,540 – Utah

Industrial states

$11,756 – Illinois

$11,630 – Michigan

$10,708 – Indiana

Izumi noted that California spending also ranks higher than states with high immigrant populations in schools, such as Arizona, Nevada and Texas. So the complaints in lawsuit about the low performance on English proficiency can’t be related to spending.

Budget cuts

Another difficulty is the budget cuts of the past two years totaling $17 billion statewide.

The CBP study that relied on the NEA numbers factored such numbers into its calculations, thus ranking (as noted above) California 46th in spending as a percentage of national income for 2008-09. It also — to add another number — ranked in spending per student for 2009-10 at 44th; with $8,826 spent compared to the $11,372 national average.

But as we have seen, the NEA numbers aren’t as comprehensive as the Census numbers. So we should wait for the Census report on those later years, Izumi said. He added that all states, not just California, have been cutting school spending because of the Great Recession. And the  Obama administration could sprinkle bailout money on state schools systems.

Court date

Whatever the numbers say, the lawsuit is going forward. Where can it be expected to go? Not far, John Eastman told me; he’s Donald P. Kennedy Chair in Law and Director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence at Chapman University School of Law, and the school’s former dean.

He judged this to be a “collusive lawsuit,” in which the California Board of Education “won’t put up much of a fight. I’d like to get a taxpayer group intervening in the case so somebody is defending state law.”

He said such lawsuits are “access litigation suits based on broad wording in the constitution,” such as the phrase quoted in the first paragraph above. He added that such wording in the state constitution as “support of the public school system” has “been seen by the courts as giving students an education, but not a specific level of funding.”

And as to California schools’ poor performance, he quipped, “Their defendant ought to be the teachers’ unions” for “pension spiking. There’s not a lack of money going into the school system.” The problem, he said, is what’s done with it within the system.

Missouri Vs. Jenkins

Eastman also pointed to a case similar to this one that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Missouri vs. Jenkins, filed in 1977. According to the Wikipedia summary, in 1985 the District Court “required the state of Missouri to correct de facto racial inequality in schools by funding salary increases and remedial education programs.”

However, 10 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision, by ruling, in Wikipedia’s summary: “The District Court’s school desegregation orders… went beyond the court’s remedial authority.”

What’s interesting is what happened in the intervening years, 1985-95, when the school district was forced to impose new taxes and spend more on lower-performing schools, especially in Kansas City. Wikipedia again:

In 1985, the district court then ordered the legal remedy of educational improvement programs, school facility repairs, and magnet schools, which were thought to be the best way to attract white suburban students back into city schools. In 1987, the district courts ordered mandatory salary assistance, arguing that in order to end segregation in the schools the district needed higher-paid, quality teachers, and in 1993 the district court ordered the state to pay for salary increases for teaching and non-teaching personnel.

The case is described in Complex Justice: The Case of Missouri v. Jenkins, by Joshua M. Dunn. The following summary is from a review of the book in the Claremont Review of Books.

Some parts of the case actually dragged on after the 1995 Supreme Court decision to 2003. By then, $2 billion had been spent on desegregating and improving Kansas City schools. Claremont:

The court order turned every high school and middle school (as well as half the elementary schools) into “magnet schools,” each with a distinctive theme—including not merely science, performing arts, and computer studies, but also classical Greek, Asian studies, agribusiness, and environmental studies. The newly constructed classical Greek high school housed an Olympic-sized pool with an underwater observation room, an indoor track, a gymnastic center, and racquetball courts. The former coach of the Soviet Olympic fencing team was hired to teach inner-city students how to thrust and parry. The school system spent almost a million dollars a year to recruit white kids from the suburbs, and even hired door-to-door taxi service for them. By 1995 Kansas City was spending over $10,000 per student, more than any comparable school system in the country.

The result:

Despite this massive effort, litigation failed either to improve the quality of education or to reduce racial isolation. Test scores continued to drop, and the percentage of minority students continued to rise. Eventually, black parents—who had long opposed the court’s heavy emphasis on “magnet schools” designed to draw whites into the school system—insisted upon a return to neighborhood schools.

John Seiler, an editorial writer with The Orange County Register for 19 years, is a reporter and analyst for CalWatchDog.com. His email: [email protected].

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