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Second lawsuit seeks billions more for California schools

July 12, 2010 |  9:30 am

A coalition of education activists filed a lawsuit Monday to seek a vast increase, by billions of dollars annually, in California's funding of education. This litigation follows a similar legal claim filed in May by other groups.

In both cases, the defendants are California and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor's office has said it will vigorously oppose the other suit, while also asserting that it supports efforts to improve and pay for education.

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

The latest suit says "the State of California ... is failing to provide all children with an equal opportunity to obtain a meaningful education. It is failing to appropriately and adequately fund the public school system. And it is failing to prepare children to meaningfully participate in our democracy, succeed economically, or live in our diverse society."

The complaint says California's student population is "among the most challenging in the nation," with the largest number of students learning English and among the highest numbers of students living in poverty. Yet California's per-pupil funding, especially when adjusted for cost of living, is among the lowest in the nation. And the budget cuts of the last several years have only made matters worse, education advocates say.

Nor is money equally distributed, according to the suit, which cites state-commissioned studies: "California delivers to districts of similar size and demographics vastly different amounts of funding for no apparent reason."

Both funding lawsuits were filed in Alameda County, where some of the students taking part in the litigation reside.

It's likely that both suits will be combined or heard in tandem eventually, said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, a San Francisco-based public interest law firm involved in the second suit.

Groups involved in Monday's litigation include the Campaign for Quality Education, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Californians for Justice and the San Francisco Organizing Project.

The students involved in the suit include Yesenia Ochoa and Jacqueline Reyes, who attend John O'Connell Technical High School in the San Francisco Unified School District. Due to lack of funds, the suit states, their school "has been forced to eliminate critical teacher positions and significantly reduce its course offerings." The school also "suffers from regular shortages of instructional materials and classroom supplies, and their school year has been shortened by four days" as a result of recent budget pressures.

The school also employs "below-average" teachers "in terms of credentials and/or experience." In the 2008-09 school year, more than 20% of O'Connell's teachers were in their first or second year of teaching.

The suit being filed Monday includes specific suggestions on how additional dollars should be spent.

"The state needs a comprehensive data system to ascertain what's effective and what's not," Affeldt said.  And a system "that will deliver prepared, effective teachers to every school. And the state should invest more in preschool for low-income kids so they are ready to learn."

-- Howard Blume

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