Canan Tasci, Staff Writer | Contra Costa Times
6/13/2010 -- State officials have about a week to respond to a lawsuit that could force lawmakers and the governor to overhaul California's school finance system and policies.
The suit says the current education financing system is unconstitutional and asks the court to require the establishment of one that provides the proper funding for all of the state's programs.
The case was filed in Superior Court in Alameda County on May 20 by more than 60 students and their families, nine school districts, the California School Boards Association, the state PTA and the Association of California School Administrators.
The state has 30 days to respond.
"We have tried many avenues as an education coalition to let the governor know that what they're doing to education is harmful to education and to the generation, and they have done nothing to remedy the problem," said Caryn Payzant, Alta Loma School District board member and California School Boards Association's key communicator for San Bernardino County.
"This is a last resort to get their attention and to let them know about what they're doing is wrong."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he has instructed his lawyers to work with the court and with the plaintiffs to "really make sure that we are working and going in the right direction.
"We are interested in funding and the money that goes into the classroom. That is the important thing. I think that we need funding. We need to go and straighten out our funding mechanism. I think that we've got to straighten out our budget system, our tax system.
"And also, we have to concentrate on that we have equal education for every child and that we have accountability. There is no such thing as increasing funding and just throwing more money at that broken system."
California's revenue and expenditure system makes schools almost completely dependent on the state.
California ranks 47th in per-pupil spending, with an average of $7,500 spent per student, in comparison to the national average of $9,900.
With class sizes increasing, and summer school, arts, music, librarians, nurses and counselors being cut, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said failing to fund programs and resources will threaten students' need to thrive and compete in a competitive global economy.
"According to the Legislative Analyst's recent analysis on per capita real general fund spending in the governor's proposed May budget revision, `The level of spending proposed by the administration would continue the recent drop in state spending, as adjusted for growth in population and inflation. In 2010-11, the inflation adjusted per capita spending level would be similar to that of 1993-94 - also a low point due to a recession,"' O'Connell said.
"If the political will to protect our future is faltering, perhaps this lawsuit and the courts will be the catalyst to meet our obligation to the more than 6 million students in our state."
The suit itself has been a year in the making, said Deborah Caplan, attorney for the plaintiffs.
Time was spent developing the legal theory and making sure whatever action was taken made a solid argument.
"Any time you bring a constitutional challenge to the state education finance system, it's a big challenge," Caplan said.
Caplan said this suit is special because of its approach. Some states have tried to create a similar suit that asks the courts to define what type of education is needed and determine how much it would cost for the education it deemed necessary, she said.
"We think the state has defined the educational program that it thinks is necessary to prepare students to go to college, get a job and be productive in the 21st century, but we are saying that once you define the program ... (you) also have a duty to fund it," Caplan said.
"I think districts have been increasingly concerned because they're the ones who are responsible for delivering the program, but they don't have the any additional resources to meet those needs."
State Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss said all agree that funding is important, but countless studies show that more money alone will not help students.
"The Governor's Administration stands ready to work with the courts and the plaintiffs on reviewing the state's school finance system, however, we must look at the entire education system and reform the way that money is spent to put the needs of students first and maximize funding in the classroom," she said.
Payzant has extended an offer to visit other school districts, service organizations and chambers of commerce to discuss the suit.
"The education of our next generation affects all of us as a community, and that's why it's not just the education community that should be aware of this, because having an educated population makes us strong," she said.
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