A California appeals court has upheld a lower court’s decision to throw out a case that argued that California’s state constitution gives students a right to a “quality” education.
The plaintiffs claimed the legislature has not given schools enough funding to ensure a high-level of quality, but the justices said the challengers were reading too far into the state’s 1879 Constitution, which simply guarantees the right to access education. The decision was 2-1.
California’s state Supreme Court first declared education to be a fundamental right in 1971 when it struck down a statewide school financing system based on unequal property taxes. The majority of justices, however, said that this case goes too far in obligating courts to determine what policymakers should be deciding.
“We find 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,” wrote Associate Justice Martin Jenkins in defense of the majority opinion. “Rather, the constitutional sections leave the difficult and policy-laden questions associated with educational adequacy and funding to the legislative branch.”
An organization called Campaign for Quality Education, along with prominent education groups in California, including the State PTA and the California Teachers Association, filed lawsuits against the California state government for failing to provide all public school children with a constitutionally-mandated “quality” education. California’s legislature, having passed less than adequate funds for education, failed in its constitutional duty. The lawsuit described such funding as “insufficient, irrational, and unstable.”
According to John Fensterwald of EdSource, the lawsuits were filed at a time of economic distress when the legislature embarked on big budget cuts in education in 2010. Since then, the California legislature has restored most of the funding that was lost during the recession. But supporters of the lawsuits say that despite a restoration of funding, California still will remain the lowest in the nation in per-student staffing levels.
Indeed, the lawsuits’ advocates found a champion on the appeals court. The one justice who dissented, Associate Justice Stuart Pollak, vigorously disagreed with his colleagues. He said that the Constitution’s mandate to provide an education “implies the need to maintain public schools at some minimum level of competence.” Thus, in his view, the courts have a role in determining what levels of funding are adequate to meet that guaranteed minimum.
Interestingly, Bob Egelko of SFGate writes that similar suits have been filed in other states, and most have been successful. Courts in at least six states have found that their school funding violated students’ rights. In 2015, the Washington state Supreme Court held its state legislature in contempt for failing to increase funding.
The California School Boards Association CEO & Executive Director Vernon Billy said of the decision in a statement: “Today’s decision is truly disappointing for California’s students and families. We firmly believe all students in California have a fundamental right to an education that meets the standards the state has set – and that is currently being denied to many, especially low-income students and students of color.”