May 20, 2010
Stanford law clinic fights to fix California school funding
By Adam Gorlick
California schools have long suffered under what many say is an outdated and broken funding system. Teachers are laid off, afterschool and summer programs evaporate, and courses designed to help both the most talented and at-risk students are scrapped.
But mandated standards remain. In order to graduate from high school, students must pass state-designed tests that demand certain levels of knowledge and skill that are often missing among students whose schools have been hardest hit.
The gap between school financing and educational expectation is too wide, and Stanford Law School's Mills Legal Clinic is part of a legal battle to fix the disparity.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court, lawyers from the clinic and other organizations representing students, parents and schools are attempting to force lawmakers to change how schools are funded.
The plaintiffs say the current system is built on a complicated web of outdated formulas, assumptions and rules that date to the 1970s. The problems have rendered the system unconstitutional because it essentially denies students equal access to education, they say.
"California's education finance system is dysfunctional," said William Koski, director of the clinic's Youth and Education Law Project. "It doesn't provide school districts with the funds they need to ensure children are succeeding."
While educational standards have risen, performance and resources have not. The result is a list of embarrassments: California schools rank 49th nationally in student-teacher ratios, 49th in providing students access to computers, 47th in fourth-grade reading proficiency and 46th in eighth-grade math skills.
The state spends about $8,000 a year to educate one student, about $2,100 less than the national average. But just meeting the national per-pupil expenditure won't necessarily guarantee California students a better education, Koski said.
The lawsuit filed Thursday doesn't demand money. Instead, it asks a judge to force lawmakers to figure out exactly how much it costs to ensure that students have an equal opportunity and the resources they need to meet the state's own testing requirements.
"We believe this is an appropriate role for the courts to play," Koski said. "We're not asking a judge to legislate. The resolution will come in the political arena. But forcing the legislature to do something will break the gridlock on these issues in Sacramento."
Neither Stanford nor the Law School are directly involved with the lawsuit. But it's a natural fit for the Mills Legal Clinic, which selects cases based on their educational value.
The clinic's program exposes students to the spectrum of services lawyers provide their clients from interviewing and counseling to writing briefs and delivering oral arguments. The clinic also instills a sense of community service in law students, encouraging them to use their professional skills in the service of society.
The Youth and Education Law Project gives law students the chance to work with children and families fighting for access to equal educational opportunities. The project represents clients in special education and school discipline matters, community outreach and education, school reform lawsuits, policy research and legal advocacy.
The project, along with the Bingham McCutchen law firm and its partner William Abrams, a consulting professor at Stanford, is representing the kindergarten through 12th-grade students and families involved in the lawsuit filed Thursday. Other plaintiffs include school superintendents and school districts throughout the state, as well as the California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators and the California Congress of Parents, Teachers and Students.
The case is Robles-Wong, et al. v. State of California.