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Lawsuit: California Failing Its Students

Protesters rally on the steps of the county courthouse in downtown Oakland July 12, 2010
Protesters rally on the steps of the county courthouse in downtown Oakland July 12, 2010
Second suit seeks billions in restored education funds

A coalition of advocacy groups representing thousands of parents and low-income students in California sued the state on Monday claiming that California is failing in its legal obligation to adequately and equitably fund its public schools.

The lawsuit, filed at the Alameda County Courthouse following a midday rally, marks the second time in the past two months that California groups have sought to claw back billions of dollars in state funding through a legal challenge.

In May, a group of students, school districts and educators, including Carlos Garcia, the San Francisco superintendent, filed a similar lawsuit against the state, which has cut roughly $17 billion in public school funding over the past two years amid unprecedented fiscal difficulty. That lawsuit, Robles-Wong v. California, was also filed in Alameda County, and both teams of lawyers say they hope that a single judge will rule on the two cases in tandem.

Parties named as plaintiffs in the Monday filing, Californians for Quality Education, et al. v. California, included the Campaign for Quality Education and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, both based in Southern California; Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm in San Francisco; and Yesenia Ochoa and Jacqueline Reyes, two students at John O'Connell High School of Technology in the San Francisco Unified School District.

“Education is a fundamental right under the California Constitution,” the lawsuit reads. But the state “is failing to provide all children with an equal opportunity to obtain a meaningful education. It is failing to appropriately and adequately fund the public school system. And it is failing to prepare children to meaningfully participate in our democracy, succeed economically, or live in our diverse society," the suit claims.

There is national precedent for the tactic. Advocacy groups in other states, including New York, have had considerable success forcing their legislatures to spend billions more on education by suing: roughly 70 percent of such “adequacy lawsuits” have succeeded, according to a national association of state legislatures.

Here in California, the plaintiffs in both lawsuits have framed their demand for funding in familiar constitutional terms, but there are substantive differences between the Monday filing and the earlier suit that may be freighted with political baggage.

Unlike Robles-Wong — which simply calls for restored funding — the lawsuit on Monday wades into the realm of policy: It calls for restored funding and specifies how those dollars should be spent.

“This is largely focused on money, but it gets into using the money effectively and explicitly, particularly around teacher quality,” said John Affeldt, the managing attorney of Public Advocates. “It’s not just about throwing money at the system.”

Affeldt said in an interview Monday that one of the areas in which the plaintiffs call for greater investment is preschool care for low-income children. The other target for funding should be data systems that track student and teacher performance, guaranteeing that only effective teachers, using effective methods, are in classrooms, Affeldt said.

“We’re saying there has to be teacher evaluation systems that are locally bargained and locally constructed and they need to be fair,” Affeldt said. “I think the teachers’ union would agree that it’s a good thing that we ought not to be scapegoating but we ought to figure out who are the teachers that need support, if there are ones that need to counseled out then those need to be counseled out of the profession.”

At a press conference on Monday, Ochoa and Reyes, the two students from San Francisco, said they joined the suit because O’Connell High has cut critical teacher positions and class offerings due to budget pressures. The school has also struggled to procure enough educational materials and supplies, according to the lawsuit.

The SFUSD, which played a leading role in Robles-Wong but is the home district of two of the lead plaintiffs, has yet to decide whether to support the newer challenge. When reached on Monday afternoon, spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said the district will have its lawyers examine the lawsuit first, but added that, as a matter of principle, “we support whatever will get schools adequate funding.”

“The fact that the plaintiffs are in our school district is a reflection on public schools on the whole in California, not our specific district,” Blythe said.

At a higher level, a sense of unease from district administrators — who must manage relations with their teaching staff and implement the resource-intensive and data-systems — may greet the CQE plaintiffs.

“All of this stuff is going to be political," Affeldt acknowledged. But, he added, "everyone thinks having educational access for our kids is a good thing, that having more data and transparency is a good thing.”

In the end, Affeldt said, he did not think the relatively prescriptive elements of his coalition’s “grassroots” lawsuit would clash with the parallel, more neutrally framed Robles-Wong suit.

“As I see it, the school board associations and administrators' associations and the PTA and our grassroots groups are very closely aligned in the sort of arguments we’re making,” he said. “I think there’s a pretty powerful combination between the two lawsuits.”

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