Serrano vs. Priest School Financing Case Pops Up in SB 277 Debate

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

It was a bit jarring to hear the numerous references to the California Supreme Court’s Serrano vs. Priest decisions of the 1970s taking a prominent roll in the passionate Assembly debate over SB 277, the measure to disallow personal belief and religious exemptions for mandated vaccinations of school children. Serrano vs. Priest had nothing to do with medical issues or parental choice but was a series of major decisions that changed the course of school financing in California.

Well, maybe it did have something to do with parental choice in a round about sort of way. What prompted the case was a choice parents made on where to live and how much school districts spent on students.

The issue raised in Serrano vs. Priest was that students were not treated equally because wealthier communities could afford to spend more on students than poorer communities. Schools relied on the property tax as their main source of revenue. Homes in richer enclaves would pay more in property taxes (and usually at a lower tax rate) than in less wealthy places. For an area with lower property values, the tax rate would have to be extraordinarily high to secure a match of the revenue per student received in the wealthier districts.

John Serrano was a parent who felt his son was being deprived of an equal education because of the disparity in funding. He was advised to move to a wealthier community to get a better education for his son. Serrano was the lead plaintiff in the class action suit that took on the state’s school financing system.

And, the case was all about school finances. The defendant was California’s State Treasurer at the time, Ivy Baker Priest. Serrano’s lawyers pointed out that in 1968-69 the Baldwin Park School District spent $577 a student while Pasadena spent $840 and Beverly Hills $1,231. Serrano’s role in altering school finance was monumental enough that his passing a decade ago earned an obituary in the Los Angeles Times.

The case may have had a broader impact on the state’s finances. A Dartmouth economics professor, William Fischel, has argued that the case laid the foundation for the passage of Proposition 13 a few years later. He said that once schools were not as reliant on property tax, local taxpayers were more inclined to put the clamps on property tax rates. His theory has been challenged by UCLA professors.

So how did the case earn a number of mentions in the SB 277 debate?

The American Civil Liberties Union argued that SB 277 could deny equal access to education. The ACLU pointed out that the Serrano decision concluded that access to education was a fundamental right and could not be limited or denied unless the state demonstrates its actions were “necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.” If parents chose not to vaccinate their children because of personal beliefs, the argument goes, the children would not be allowed to enter school and thus be denied access to an equal education in violation of the Serrano decision.

SB 277 allows for home school education if parents refuse to vaccinate their children. The question a court may face is whether home school education is considered equal to a public school education. Many parents not involved in the SB 277 fight who home school their children might argue it is superior.

It seems to me lawyers defending SB 277 will have no problem arguing that a compelling state interest exists dealing with health concerns to override objections based on the nearly five-decade old case.

Follow Joel Fox on Twitter @1JoelFox1

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