Suit Shows What’s Wrong with California Schools

Published June 11, 2010

Frustrated by some tough budget years, California public school officials want a court to declare the state’s Byzantine school finance system unconstitutional. The stated goal of the lawsuit is to circumvent lawmakers (and reality) by asking a judge to force billions of dollars in unaffordable education spending increases.

But the system isn’t “unconstitutional” so much as unworkable. The way to achieve an equitable and affordable public school system in the Golden State isn’t more funding to prop up a bloated bureaucracy. The answer is to fund all children equally by letting the funding follow the child. The answer is choice.

This is hardly a radical idea. Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania, for example, offer tax credits to corporations and individuals who finance scholarships for children from low-income families. Even Sweden lets families choose the school they want, public or private, backed by a tax-subsidized scholarship.

The case filed May 20 in Alameda County Superior Court, Robles-Wong vs. California, is a broad indictment of a dysfunctional and obsolete state education system. The complaint succeeds brilliantly in chronicling the ruin of the state’s public schools. Californians need to read this lawsuit to understand why there can never be enough money to meet state requirements, particularly when one takes into account the socioeconomic differences among school districts.

For starters, read pages 20-27 of the complaint. Imagine how a state can provide a “system of schools” made up of “approximately 1,000 districts,” all mandated to meet “content standards” and hundreds of secondary and tertiary government services demanded by special interests from San Diego to Humboldt County.

The complaint also alleges, “The state has never attempted to align education funding with the cost of providing the required program and services or with the cost of ensuring that all the students’ educational needs are met.”

It’s not a question of how much money the state spends on schools, but how and where the money can be most effectively allocated. The lawsuit’s ostensible purpose – providing all children equal opportunity for an education – is impossible in the context of creating full employment for an army of government workers.

Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Board Association, gave away the game to the press the day the lawsuit was announced. “Just once before I die I would like for us to improve our schools by pouring enough money into our system to bring us back to where we used to be with smaller class sizes, counselors, school nurses and school librarians,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Just once, let’s try it with more money instead of by laying off 40,000 teachers.”

That’s the trouble. We have tried more money.

The education establishment views the case as a bureaucracy preservation problem, which evades the real problem – the failure of that bureaucracy to educate California’s children. Students only enter the equation as a pretext for propping up the salaries and benefits of public employees.

The fact is, court-ordered school spending has never translated to academic success. A federal court judge ruled in 1985 that school officials in Kansas City, Mo., had to double local property taxes to fund $2 billion aimed at improving performance in low-income and mostly minority schools. In the blizzard of spending that followed over the next two decades, students got state-of-the-art science facilities, Olympic-size swimming pools, small classes – and no measurable improvement in academic outcomes.

Voters’ efforts to boost school funding haven’t translated to success either. Proposition 98, which Californians passed in 1988, locked California into a budget-busting mandate directing at least 40 percent of the state budget toward elementary and secondary education. Since its passage, California has seen negligible gains in academic outcomes and lagged well behind mediocre national trends.

What the California case needs is a second group of plaintiffs to intervene and argue the only workable way to secure the fundamental right to an education in a truly equitable fashion is to fund every child equally. The court certainly could declare the entire system unconstitutional – and then insist that funding follow the child to any school that meets California’s content standards.

Lasting reform requires shifting from the stifling chaos of the current “bureaucracy-based” system to the spontaneous order that will unfold as we fund the child. That’s the only system that comports with the spirit and the letter of the “equal protection” clause in any constitution.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of
School Reform News, and Bruno Behrend ([email protected]) is director of the Center for School Reform.