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Lawsuit aims to overhaul school funding system, provide schools with more dollars [Updated]

May 20, 2010 | 11:56 am

Education funding must be increased by billions of dollars to meet legal requirements under the California Constitution, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.

The litigation, filed by the California School Boards Assn., nine school districts and students and parents,  arrives as school districts are struggling from successive years of steep budget cuts brought on by a sputtering economy and lawmakers’ reluctance to raise taxes.

But the legal action filed in Alameda County Superior Court isn’t merely about restoring dollars. Instead it seeks a rethinking on the funding levels needed to equitably and successfully educate the state’s children.

“This lawsuit is not about adequacy but about getting the courts to declare the current school finance system unconstitutional,” said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards group. “There is no rational connection between the system we have and the support that it’s given.”

But there is a direct link between school funding and the state budget. Dollars for schools are currently protected through voter-approved minimum guarantees. But even that system allows funding to shrink during hard times.

And some officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, insist it’s necessary and fair for education to absorb its share of cutbacks.The governor’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday morning, saying it had not yet been reviewed.

[Updated at 1 p.m.:Schwarzenegger's education secretary Bonnie Reiss issued the following statement in response: "The governor will oppose this lawsuit and believes the state will prevail. The funding of public education in California has long been and continues to be a top priority of California, even in bad economic and budget times. We will continue to fight to keep education a budget priority as well as fight for the other reforms essential to ensuring a great education for all our students regardless of where they live or their race or economic background."

Separately, the California Teachers Assn., the state's largest teachers union, hailed the fling of the lawsuit.]

The suit was filed against the governor and the state of California. Other parties involved are 49 students, parents, the Assn. of California School Administrators and school districts including San Francisco, Riverside and Santa Ana.

Similar suits brought in other states have yielded new revenues for schools. But there’s on ongoing debate about how directly more money translates to improved schools.

Conservatives and libertarians frequently point to the disappointing results of a court-ordered infusion of dollars poured into the schools of Kansas City, Mo.

Plotkin is unswayed by that cautionary tale.

“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 said. “Just once let’s try it with more money instead of by laying off 40,000 teachers.”

The lawsuit tabulates $17 billion in cuts in recent years to a system that it asserts was already grossly underfunded.

The complaint doesn’t specify exactly how much money would be needed. Nor does it argue for mandatory tax increases, but it does assert that, under the Constitution, schools get a primary claim on dollars that are there, Plotkin said.

He acknowledged that higher taxes could be part of the outcome were state officials to fully fund schools while properly maintaining other services.

Some of California’s most respected researchers released a collection of reports in 2007 that called for a massive increase in funding concurrent with sweeping reforms.

The Quality Education Investment Act, part of an earlier lawsuit settlement, was supposed to supply evidence once and for all that money to create smaller classes and provide more counselors and other services at selected schools would make a difference in California. But the ongoing budget crisis has undermined that experiment by diluting the effect of the extra dollars.

As it stands, the results have been mixed. Some advocates point to success stories, but other schools still struggle. L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines last year ordered the complete restructuring of Fremont High, which has received the added dollars.

-- Howard Blume

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