The Right to a "Quality" Education

by Carol Kocivar | May 24, 2016 | 0 Comments
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Is California's Low Funding Unconstitutional?

Between doing the laundry, getting the kids to school, soccer practice and work, you might not have had time to read about a recent California court case that affects education funding. It is an important one. Here is the issue:

“If our children are not getting a quality education, can the courts say we have to fix this?"

In many states across America, courts have played an important role in determining whether funding for public education is adequate. So far, in California, the courts have said, “NO. This is not something for the courts. The legislature has to deal with this."

To really simplify the judicial arguments, here is the Twitter version:

  • Majority says: We feel your pain but low funding for education is not unconstitutional.
  • Minority says: Si se puede. The courts can enforce the right to a quality education.

A Little Background

Two lawsuits, Robles-Wong v California and the Campaign for Quality Education v California, were filed in 2010 during the great recession, when California school funding was cut by billions of dollars. The claim: The state’s school finance system violates Article IX (the Education Article) of the California Constitution.

The plaintiffs argued that all public school children have a constitutional right to an education of “some quality,” and, alternatively, that the Legislature is currently failing to meet its constitutional duty by employing an irrational educational funding scheme. They asked the court to declare the education finance system unconstitutional and order the state to design an educational finance system that fulfills its constitutional duty to all children in California.

Court of Appeal Decision

In the spring of 2016, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco, in a 2-1 ruling, said, "No” to their arguments, with Associate Justices Siggins and Jenkins in the majority. The arguments center around the language of the constitution and what can be implied from those words.

The court found there is “no support for finding implied constitutional rights to an education of “some quality” for public school children or a minimum level of expenditures for education… To the contrary, the language of these constitutional sections do not include qualitative or funding elements that can be enforced by the courts. Rather, the constitutional sections leave the difficult and policy-laden questions associated with educational adequacy and funding to the legislative branch.”

The Minority Opinion

Associate Justice Pollak disagreed:

"Most state supreme courts addressing the question have read their state constitution implicitly to mandate a minimum qualitative educational system which they have struggled to enforce…. The different outcomes result less from the differences in the wording of respective constitutions than from the different perceptions of the role properly played by the courts in overseeing compliance with the state’s basic charter. I respectfully dissent from my colleagues’ decision to align California with those few state courts that have declined to accept the responsibility to enforce the right of every child to an adequate education.”

Next Step?

An appeal to the California Supreme Court at the end of May 2016. [Update: The Supreme Court declined to review the ruling]

What Do Other State Constitutions Say?

The Education Commission of the States provides an analysis of the different constitutional obligations of the 50 states. The National Education Access Network summarizes the state of related lawsuits across the states.

In the meantime, California still lags the nation in education funding as well as in academic achievement.

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