K-12 public schools in California enroll about 6.3 million students, with 52% in poverty, 24% learning English, 71% minorities, and annual expenditures of almost $62 billion. (Most recent NCES and CDE data)
In the 1970s and 1980s, the California Supreme Court declared education a fundamental right under the state constitution and held that disparities in per-pupil spending between school districts must be insignificant. An ongoing 2004 legal settlement for certain schools requires the state to fund building repairs and instructional materials and review conditions annually.
Two current lawsuits, Robles-Wong v. State and Campaign for Quality Education (CQE) v. State, allege that the state’s school funding system violates the state constitution’s education and equal protection articles.
In early 2013, several organizations filed amicus briefs on behalf of plaintiffs, in the combined cases Campaign for Quality Education (CQE) and Robles-Wong v. State, now in the California Court of Appeal. Plaintiffs and amici responded to the state’s arguments that the courts should not hear the case. The amicus brief from Education Law Center provides the national perspective, explaining that 1) courts in sister states have found a qualitative right to an education under education articles like the Education Article of the California Constitution; 2) courts are institutionally suited to enforce the constitutional right to an education under judicially manageable standards; and, 3) the separation of powers doctrine obligates the Court to interpret and enforce the education clause of the state constitution to protect the rights guaranteed to California’s children.
In the 1970s, in Serrano v. Priest I & II, the California Supreme court held that under the state equal protection clause, education is a fundamental right and wealth is a suspect class. The court found California’s property-tax-based school funding system unconstitutional because it made the quality of a child’s education a function of community wealth. The court ordered the legislature to equalize funding among school districts, and in Serrano III, the court found the revised funding system satisfied equal protection requirements.
A 2004 settlement in Williams v. California continues to require the state to address conditions in certain schools. Williams challenged deplorable conditions in these specific schools, which are located across the state. In the settlement, the state agreed to: provide $800 million for school repairs and $139 million for instructional materials; ensure teacher qualification and equitable assignment; institute ongoing complaint procedures; and, review school conditions annually. A 2009 ACLU report found significant progress, but large cuts to state education funding may have impeded progress.
In 2010, two groups of plaintiffs filed cases in the same court challenging the state’s complicated and convoluted education finance system. Students and their families, nine school districts, the California School Boards Association, California State PTA, and the Association of California School Administrators filed Robles-Wong v. State, alleging that the state’s school funding system is unconstitutional because it is does not fund the actual cost of providing the program of education mandated by the state and does not take into account the needs of disadvantaged students. Another coalition, including students, grassroots organizations, and taxpayers brought Campaign for Quality Education (CQE) v. State, alleging that the state is unconstitutionally failing to: provide all children with an equal opportunity to obtain a meaningful education; fund the public school system appropriately and adequately; and, prepare children to participate capably in our democracy, succeed economically, or live in our diverse society.
In 2011, the trial court found the Robles-Wong and CQE plaintiffs’ claims based on state equal protection valid, but dismissed plaintiffs’ claims under the state constitution’s education article. Plaintiffs filed amended complaints, which met with the same result from the court, and they filed a joint appeal in 2012 in the California Court of Appeal. Briefing ended in early 2013, and the parties await a decision.
In 2010, plaintiffs from three Los Angeles middle schools filed Reed v. State alleging that a recent Reduction in Force resulted in a disproportionate number of teachers being laid off at their low-wealth schools. In 2011, the trial court approved a settlement intended to prevent layoffs at certain schools and provide support and resources aimed at stabilizing and improving those schools, including retention incentives for teachers and principals.
In 2011, the California School Boards Association, the Association of CA School Administrators, and three school districts filed a case in state superior court, asking for declaratory and injunctive relief against the State. Plaintiffs claimed that the 2011-12 state budget underfunded public schools by $2.1 billion, in violation of the state constitution and the implementing statutes for “Prop 98.” Voters passed Proposition 98 in 1988, amending the constitution to guarantee California public schools, K-12 and community colleges, a certain minimum level of funding each year.
"A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement." Ca. Const., art. IX, § 1.
"The Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district at least six months in every year, after the first year in which a school has been established." Ca. Const., art. IX, § 5.
The methods for funding the state’s school system are set forth in great detail in Article IX, § 6 of the Constitution. This section has evolved through California’s initiative and referendum process.
In Serrano v. Priest (Serrano I), the California Supreme Court rejected plaintiffs claim that the state finance system violated the "system of common schools" clause of the state constitution’s education article by allegedly producing separate and distinct systems, each offering an educational program which varied with the relative wealth of the district's residents. The court wrote:
"We have held that the word "system," as used in article IX, section 5, implies a unity of purpose as well as an entirety of operation, and the direction to the legislature to provide 'a' system of common schools means one system which shall be applicable to all the common schools within the state. However, we have never interpreted the constitutional provision to require equal school spending; we have ruled only that the educational system must be uniform in terms of the prescribed course of study and educational progression from grade to grade." 487 P.2d 1241 (1971).
Though the court did not hold the education article in the California Constitution to require equal school spending, it nevertheless found that equal funding was required based on the state equal protection clause. In 1971, in Serrano I, the California Supreme Court found that education was a fundamental right for equal protection purposes. After the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1973, held that education is not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution, the California Supreme Court reiterated in Serrano II that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution.
In CQE v. California, filed in 2010, plaintiffs point to a lack of access to preschool opportunities for low-income students as one of the inadequacies in the state’s current education system.
In California Teachers Association v. Hayes, 5 Cal. App.4th 1513 (Cal. App. 1999), the appellate court found that funding the state provided for child care could count towards the state’s minimum education funding obligation.
Previously-enacted legislation required the state to provide a minimum amount of funding to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to educate children. The state had included funding designated for child care and development programs in its calculation of this amount, but plaintiffs argued that the entire amount of funds should have been transferred to school districts, which then would have total discretion to determine how those funds should be spent.
The court rejected this claim, noting that under the state constitution, education and the operation of the public schools was a matter of statewide rather than local or municipal concern, and that the Legislature could therefore chose to include programs which advanced the educational mission of school districts within the minimum funding amount.
The court also observed that the Legislature had "explained its purpose for including child care and development funds in the . . . funding guarantee," by stating, among other things, "The Legislature has stated its intent that early childhood education and child development programs be a ‘concomitant part of the educational system’ by providing young children an equal opportunity for later school success." 5 Cal. App. 4th at 1520 n.3, (quoting 1989 Cal. Stat., ch. 1394, § 1).
Combined, California’s two preschool programs are rated only 4 out of 10 on the established quality indicators. During the 2009-2010 school year, they served only 17% of 4-year-olds and 10% of 3-year-olds.
The legislature has stated its intention that early childhood education and child development programs be a “concomitant part” of the state’s public education system because they provide young children, particularly those from low-income families, with a better opportunity for later school success by preparing them for participation in the public schools and by assisting them in resolving any special school-related problems.
California’s State Preschool Program and its Pre-kindergarten and Family Literacy Program serve children between the ages of 3 and 5 who are from low-income families or considered to be “at risk” of academic failure. The State Department of Education oversees the programs, designated a combined CSPP.
CSPP gives first priority to children who have been neglected or abused, then to children who are from families at or below 75 percent of the state median income. If places remain after enrolling all eligible children, the pre-K provider may enroll a limited number of children not otherwise eligible.
The program provides 3- and 4-year children with both part-day and full-day services through local education agencies, colleges, community action agencies, and private nonprofit agencies. If a school district chooses not to participate directly, the superintendent must work with eligible agencies to contract or subcontract the program.
The programs are funded through a mix of federal funds and appropriations of general revenue from the state.
State funding for the current State Preschool Program is provided to school districts, private child care and faith-based centers, and Head Start agencies and other public agencies through a competitive application process. CSPP usually funds part-day programs, but also provides a full-day program and works with other state-funded and federal child care assistance programs to fund extended days for children whose parents work full time.
Providers may not charge fees from families whose children are in the state program.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), California served 17% of all four-year-olds and 10% of all three-year-olds in its state preschool program in 2009-2010.
The program reached 4 out of 10 benchmarks.
The 4 benchmarks reached were:
- Requirement that teachers have specialized training in pre-K education
- Teacher in-service (at least 15 hours/year)
- Class ratio of 1:10 or better
- Monitoring/Site visit program
The 6 benchmarks not met were:
- Early learning standards
- Teachers must have Bachelor’s degree
- Assistant teacher must have a Child Development Associate credential, or equivalent
- Class size limits of 20 students
- Screening/referral and support services
- Requirement to provide at least one meal a day
The California State Preschool Program uses the Desired Results for Children and Families system, which has been aligned with the Preschool Learning Foundations Volume I, to record children’s development.
The Superintendent of Public Instruction is required to evaluate the effectiveness of the pre-K program, and to estimate its costs and benefits. The evaluation is to be based on, among other things, testing of the participating children, including tests administered in the Third Grade.
Public school education in California is important to our entire nation. Because it is so populous, California educates 1 in 8 children in the U.S. If these children are learning well or not, that will affect all of us.