OAKLAND — California's substandard school system is depriving students of the opportunity to receive a meaningful education and to meet the standards the state has set for them, a coalition of parents, students and civil rights advocacy groups argued in a lawsuit filed Monday in Alameda Superior Court against the state and the governor.
The plaintiffs argue that education is a fundamental right under California's constitution, and far too many students are failing to read and write at grade level or graduate from high school.
To remedy the problem, the coalition is demanding equal access to preschools, increased school funding, better data systems and an efficient, coherent school finance system that provides more resources to children with greater need.
The Campaign for Quality Education suit was filed less than two months after a similar case, Robles-Wong v. California, began to make its way through the court system. Attorneys involved with the second suit said the two cases are complementary, but that Monday's complaint gives voice to the needs of the state's low-income students.
Both cases were initiated in the context of ongoing school budget cuts, which have led to teacher layoffs, shortened school years and elementary school class sizes of 30 students or more in some districts. Per-student funding, already below the national average, dropped 14 percent from 2007-08 through 2009-10 during the state budget crisis, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
"These are not the conditions we should ask our children to thrive in, or even to survive in," said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, the San Francisco-based nonprofit law firm that will handle the case with the pro-bono support of two private law firms.
In the past 10 to 15 years, education advocates in other states, including New York, New Jersey, Wyoming, Kansas and Arkansas, have asked the courts to hold state governments accountable for the standards they set for their public schools — "usually, after a long-standing period of neglect," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark, N.J.-based Education Law Center, which advocates for public schoolchildren.
"In the last decade, there's been an acceleration of these kinds of cases," Sciarra said. He said that not all of them have been successful, but some have pressured the elected branches of government to respond.
"Ultimately, the problem is going to have to be fixed by the Legislature and the governor," he said.
Andrea McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the governor would work with the plaintiffs to reach a resolution, but that "funding alone will not solve the fundamental problems facing our schools."
These kind of cases can take many years to be resolved — and Schwarzenegger likely will be gone by the time this case is settled. For that reason, experts say, they usually come about only as a last resort.
"It's a long, uncertain and costly process. It just indicates people have run out of options," said Mike Kirst, a professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University. Still, he added, "I would have thought California would have had a lawsuit long before this."