Serrano v. Priest

In 1971, the California Supreme Court ruled education a fundamental constitutional right and remanded Serrano v. Priest, 487 P.2d 1241, for trial in what is generally regarded as the first of the modern-era education finance litigation decisions. In 1976, in Serrano v. Priest (Serrano II), 557 P.2d 929, the same court affirmed the lower court’s finding that the wealth-related disparities in per-pupil spending generated by the state’s education finance system violated the equal protection clause of the California constitution. The court distinguished the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Rodriguez decision, which applied only to the federal constitution.

When the subsequent Serrano remedy was challenged in 1986, 93% of California students were in school districts whose per-pupil spending was within $100 of each other. The court held, in Serrano v. Priest, 226 Cal. Rptr. 584 (Court of Appeal, 2d District 1986), that this level of disparity satisfied California’s equal protection requirements.

Hartzell v. Connell

In Hartzell v. Connell, 679 P.2d 35 (Cal. 1984), a group of taxpayer-parents, community organizations, and the Coalition Opposing Student Fees, filed suit against the Santa Barbara School District, its school officials and its board, alleging that a new policy requiring high school students to pay fees to participate in certain extracurricular activities violated the California Constitution’s “free school” clause (Art. IX, Sec. 5) and equal protection clause (Art. IV, Sec. 16).

The question presented to the California Supreme Court was whether public schools could charge fees for high school students to participate in educational programs simply because they were deemed “extracurricular.”

The court ultimately held that California’s “free school” clause forbids schools from charging fees for students to participate in extracurricular activities, regardless of whether waivers were provided to students with financial hardship or whether school districts were facing financial hardship.  The court did not reach the issue of whether the fee system violated the state’s equal protection clause. It did find, however, that “extracurricular activities constitute an integral component of public education” and promote civic engagement and responsibility amongst students.

Williams v. State

In 1999, several California organizations filed a school funding case, Williams v. State, in state superior court on behalf of a class of students attending substandard schools. Represented by a team of organizations, led by Public Advocates, Inc., the ACLUs of Northern and Southern California Morrison & Foerster, LLP, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the plaintiffs’ complaint cited inadequate, unsafe, and unhealthy facilities, a shortage of qualified teachers, missing libraries, a lack of instructional materials, and overcrowded schools that resulted in a staggered and shortened school year (together known as Concept 6).

In August 2004, before the case went to trial, the parties announced a settlement – later approved by the court – to: (1) provide $800 million over the next several years for school repairs; (2) create a School Facilities Needs Assessment program; (3) create standards for instructional materials and facilities; (4) require a complaint process for inadequate instructional materials, teacher vacancies, and emergency facilities problems; (5) intervene in schools ranked in the bottom 30% under the 2003 Academic Performance Index if instructional materials and facilities standards are not met; (6) streamline California credentialing for out-of-state credentialed teachers; (7) allocate about $140 million for instructional materials in 2004-2005; and several other provisions.

While the parties were optimistic about the settlement, leaders of some education organizations were concerned that it might focus too much on monitoring and compliance and not enough on educating every child, and that the amount of the settlement may be insufficient to repair every school and provide books to all children.  Those concerns were not unfounded.  Eight years after the settlement agreement, California had failed to pay even half of the Emergency Funds that it promised, leaving more than 700 schools still waiting for funds to fix broken toilets, infestation, battered walls, and clogged sewer lines.

Renee v. Duncan

In Renee v. Duncan, a coalition of parents, students, community groups, and legal advocates sued the United States Department of Education (DOE) in federal district court in San Francisco in August 2007. The plaintiffs alleged that the DOE allowed novice teachers in training to be considered “highly qualified” –  the central teacher qualification requirement under NCLB. The plaintiffs claimed that classification of new teachers as highly qualified harms students, especially the “large numbers of poor and minority students” served by these teachers. “A primary purpose of NCLB was to address this problem,” said one plaintiff.

In October 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that intern teachers cannot be labeled “highly qualified” under NCLB standards. Subsequently, however, the DOE modified its regulations – and effectively reversed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

Reed v. State of California

In February 2010, families in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) filed suit against the State and district over the State’s decision to reduce education funding levels in response to the fiscal crisis and LAUSD’s subsequent choice to lay off thousands of teachers. Due to seniority rules, the plaintiffs’ schools, which primarily served students of color, children from poverty backgrounds and English Language Learners, suffered greater reductions in staff than many of their affluent counterparts.

In April 2014, the LAUSD reached a settlement with the plaintiffs, the United Teachers Los Angeles, and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.  The settlement provided $60 million in teacher and principal pay increases, services and staff development and support in high need schools.

The three-year agreement also sought to improve teacher quality at high need schools by providing additional support to schools with high teacher turnover and student drop-out rates. The settlement supplied thirty-seven schools with more counselors, administrators and teacher training. Additionally, principals received hiring bonuses and increased salaries after their first and second years. The agreement also called for increased compensation for mentor teachers who could train less experienced colleagues.

Robles-Wong, et al. v. State of California

In May 2010, the plaintiffs in Robles-Wong, et al. v. State of California filed a complaint arguing that the State’s funding scheme was entirely divorced from educational realities and actual costs, and the State’s continued reliance upon it constituted a violation of the state constitution. In 2012, this group of plaintiffs joined forces with a coalition of advocacy groups launching a similar educational equity case, Campaign for Quality Education, et al. v. State of California. This additional coalition of advocacy groups, parents and students sought to counter the impact of a state fiscal crisis that had resulted in over 16,000 teacher layoffs and cuts to core academic programs.

Responding to a court order that had dismissed their adequacy claims but allowed their equal protection claims to proceed to trial, plaintiffs in both cases amended their complaints in March, 2011 and asserted that thousands of children in California are being denied “an equal opportunity …to succeed in learning the content of the educational standards established by the state.” These equal protection claims went beyond traditional pleadings in fiscal equity cases by relating equal protection to an opportunity to learn in accordance with the state’s academic content standards. On July 1, 2011, Judge Steven A. Brick of Alameda County Superior Court dismissed for the second time, the complaints in both Robles Wong v. State of California and Campaign for Quality Education v. State of California. In doing so, the court rejected plaintiffs’ new equal protection approach, holding that it would entertain only traditional equal protection claims that simply alleged that students in poorer school districts were “receiving fewer educational resources compared to most other students in most other districts.”

In 2012, plaintiffs filed a joint appellant brief for their case in the First Appellate District Court. The plaintiffs claimed that the district court erred in holding that the California constitution lacks a qualitative, enforceable right to an education. In February 2016, the California Court of Appeals for the First Appellate District upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The court determined that there was “no explicit textual basis” for a constitutional right to a public school education of a particular quality. It also relied strongly on “persuasive decisions” of other states that have similar constitutional language, i.e. Indiana and Missouri, which had also ruled against plaintiffs in adequacy litigations.

In a lengthy dissenting opinion, Justice Pollack stated that “if the constitutional provision is to have meaning, it must imply that the system…must provide some minimum qualitative level of education.”  He also wrote that many other states had found meaningful judicial standards for articulating educational quality and he quoted extensively relevant language from these decisions.

In August 2016, by a close 4-3 vote, California’s highest court declined to review the decisions of two lower courts. However, Justice Liu noted in a dissent that: “[I]t is possible that the complexion of the issue and, in turn, this court’s posture may change if our education system further stagnates or worsens.”

Doe v. the State of California

In September 2010 the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit in the county of Los Angeles against the State of California, charging that school districts across the state were charging illegal fees for educational programs. The case relied on an initial investigation by the ACLU that found at least 40 schools charging fees for course workbooks, laboratory expenses, Advanced Placement exams and courses, physical education uniforms, fine arts classes, and a variety of other programs.

A settlement was reached in December 2010. The state agreed to promptly send a letter and guidance document to all school superintendents informing them that “whenever a public school offers a curricular or extracurricular program to students, the California Constitution requires that the school provide all materials, supplies and equipment–whether they are necessary or supplementary to the program–to students free of charge.” The State also agreed to seek legislative and regulatory revisions that would spell out these legal requirements and would provide a complaint process for parents.

In October, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the legislature’s enactment of the statutory provisions agreed to in the settlement. Although acknowledging that imposing school fees was illegal, the governor said that the settlement agreement “goes too far.” The ACLU promptly reinstated the litigation, as permitted under the settlement agreement, and the state then moved to dismiss their suit.

In October 2012, the ACLU announced that it would dismiss the lawsuit as a result of the passage of Assembly Bill 1575, which established a statewide accountability system to ensure that schools do not charge schoolchildren illegal fees in violation of their rights to a free public education.

D.J. v. State of California

The American Civil Liberties Union of California (ACLU) and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) filed a lawsuit on April 24, 2013 in the state Superior Court, Los Angeles County. The complaint charged the state with failing to provide more than 20,000 English Language Learners (ELLs) appropriate instruction and adequate educational assistance, alleging violations of both the California constitution and the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.

One out of every four students in the state has been identified as an ELL student who requires specialized language instructional services to effectively learn and participate in the state’s K-12 public school system. In this case, plaintiffs were able to demonstrate from the state’s own documents that 20,000 students were not receiving ELL services.

On August 12, 2014, a California state judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that “credible evidence” had been presented establishing that ELL students were being denied appropriate instruction and educational assistance, and that the State had a duty under both state and federal law to ensure that these students were being provided an equal educational opportunity.

Vergara v. State of California

A Superior Court Judge in Los Angeles ruled in June 2014 that the state’s tenure, teacher dismissal and seniority-order layoff statutes were unconstitutional under the state’s equal protection clause. Vergara v. State of California. This decision could have had significant implications in setting a precedent for courts to reach beyond issues of intentional racial discrimination and adequate funding and to review a broad range of state educational policy decisions.

However, in April, 2016, a three-judge intermediate appeals court unanimously overruled the trial court’s decision. The appeals’ court found that plaintiffs failed to show that the challenged statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an inferior education. They emphasized that these statutes do not address the assignment of teachers, and that the critical decisions about which students are actually assigned to particular teachers are made at the local level by district administrators and principals. The Court also held that the subcategory of “unlucky” students was not a clearly identifiable group for equal protection purposes.

In August 2016, the California Supreme Court declined to review the intermediate appeals court’s decision. Justices Liu and Cuellar wrote dissenting opinions. They both criticized the Court of Appeals’ holding that plaintiffs asserting an equal protection claim involving a fundamental right needed to constitute an identifiable group for reasons other than the fact that they were all victims of the statutory scheme.

Cruz v. State of California

Two weeks before the Vergara decision was issued, another suit was filed that challenged state policies from a different angle in the Superior Court, Alameda County. In Cruz v. State of California, poor students of color from seven public schools claimed that they were being denied an equal educational opportunity because they received far less meaningful learning time than their peers who attended school in more affluent areas. The case was brought by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and a group of cooperating attorneys.

Plaintiffs alleged that the state’s failure to monitor the amount of instructional time provided to students denies them equal protection under both the state and federal constitutions and constitutes racial discrimination under California law. Plaintiff-students from Jefferson Senior High School presented evidence that the school failed to assign scores of students to classes, sometimes for as long as six to eight weeks.  As a result, these students were either warehoused in the school auditorium, left to roam the school hallways unsupervised, or sent home.  Many of the students were assigned to courses they had already taken and sent to “classes” with no content or instructional time. In addition, plaintiffs also presented evidence that even those students who were properly assigned to classes were detrimentally impacted by the school’s widespread scheduling failures.

In October 2014, a California Superior Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs from Jefferson High School would suffer irreparable harm if the State of California did not immediately meet with the LAUSD superintendent to devise a plan to address the school’s “shocking, unprecedented, and unacceptable” deprivations of educational opportunity. The court also ordered the state, the state board of education, and the state superintendent of public instruction to immediately meet with the LAUSD superintendent to devise a plan to remedy Jefferson High School’s scheduling failures.

In November 2015, the California State Board of Education entered into a settlement with the plaintiffs. Under this agreement, the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction promised to provide immediate assistance to six schools in Compton, Los Angeles and Oakland in compliance with AB 1012, a new state law that limits the scheduling and course assignment practices that reduced students’ learning time.

Community Coalition of South Los Angeles and Reyna Frias v. LAUSD, et al.

This lawsuit, filed in July 2015, claimed that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) misspent funds that should have been directed to low-income youth, foster children and English Language Learners (ELLs). Under California’s Local Control Funding Formula, schools are required to increase funding for schools over an eight-year period – particularly in districts with large concentrations of high needs students. The plaintiffs alleged that the Los Angeles School District violated this state funding formula by counting prior spending for “special education” as spending on services for low-income students, English Language Learners and foster youth. In July 2017, the school district settled the lawsuit, directing more funding into under-resourced schools serving African-American and Latino students.

California School Boards Association v. Cohen

The California School Boards Association filed a lawsuit in the State Superior Court, Sacramento County in September 2015 claiming that the state manipulated its school-funding formula. The state’s school-funding formula is mandated by Proposition 98 – a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1988 that requires all public schools to receive stable funding aligned with economic growth, California Sch. Bds Association v. Cohen.

In 2011, the state legislature moved funding for most childcare programs, totaling about $1.1 billion, out of the portion of the budget covered by the Proposition 98 guarantee. When the legislature approved a 2016 budget, it moved $145 million allocated for those programs back into the Proposition 98 budget–but in doing so, it failed to “rebench,” or adjust, the original base amount. In effect, this action allowed the state to assert that it had increased childcare spending without raising the minimum funding guarantee for education. The plaintiffs made clear that they do not object to childcare funding. Their concern is state manipulation of the minimum funding guarantee.

In November 2016, the court agreed with the plaintiffs and found the state’s manipulation of Proposition 98 funds unconstitutional. In July 2019, the parties settled the case.  The settlement provides that California public schools will receive a repayment of $686 million (approximately $110 per student) due to prior year underpayments.  It also contains provisions that could protect up to 1 percent of the Proposition 98 guarantee ($756 million in 2017-18 and potentially more in future years) as part of the annual certification process.

Ella T. et al, v. State Of California et al.

California Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos ruled in July 2018 that a suit claiming the state has failed to provide low-income minority students in three Los Angeles schools an opportunity to learn basic literacy may proceed to trial (Ella T. et al, v. State Of California et al.). In doing so, she rejected the state’s arguments that plaintiffs failed to identify a proper class that is being subjected to discrimination, failed to allege how defendants’ actions or inactions caused students at the three schools to be unable to read at grade level, as well as a variety of procedural and justiciability positions.

Plaintiffs’ detailed 59-page complaint alleges that the state’s failure to provide adequate instruction in basic literacy denies students the fundamental right to education guaranteed under Articles I and IV of the state constitution. In holding that these claims do state a valid cause of action, the court indicated that these claims are entitled to strict scrutiny analysis both because the plaintiffs are members of a racial minority and because of their low-income status. (The California Supreme Court has held that poverty is a “suspect class” under the California constitution.)

The complaint further alleges that in 2012, the State’s own literacy experts documented a crisis in literacy in a report that stated that “Statewide assessment data indicate that there is an urgent need to address the language and literacy development of California’s underserved populations, specifically English learners, students with disabilities, socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and African-American and Hispanic students.” The experts’ call for urgent action was not heeded by the defendants and the report’ recommendations were never implemented, according to the plaintiffs.

In March 2020, plaintiffs and the state reached a settlement agreement in the Ella T. Case. The settlement will establish, upon passage of Governor Newsom’s budget, a $50 million block grant program for the 75 lowest-performing elementary schools in the state. The grant recipient schools in coordination with their districts will be required to identify the root causes of school underperformance and then develop a plan based on high-quality literacy training and expertise to address those needs. The agreement also provides $3 million for the hiring of literacy experts to help districts in implementing their plans, as well as funding for community engagement initiatives.

Mark Rosenbaum, one of the attorneys who filed the suit along with the law firm of Morrison & Foerster, said he hopes the state will expand the targeted funding to more schools without more litigation. But settling for 75 schools now means that students will get help sooner. The funding is contingent upon the legislature’s approval of the governor’s $50 million block grant to fund the program. If the grant is not approved, the case goes back to court.

As of July, 2021, the case has not gone back to court. 

EdSource Online is a comprehensive source of information on California’s education system. Their overview of the state’s very complicated finance system is especially useful.

Last updated: April 2020



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