It was a good week for the educational status quo in California. Our state’s Supreme Court declined to hear challenges to rules that make it hard to fire teachers and to the state’s low funding for K-12 education.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that 3 of the 7 justices on the Supreme Court dissented, indicating they want to take on the educational system. And the strongest voice among those three was Justice Goodwin Liu.
Liu is a forceful writer who mixes legal reasoning with historical and political claims. He can be maddening. And when he doesn’t have his history right (as in a ruling that involved direct democracy), he can get it wrong.
But he issued two dissents to his colleagues’ decision not to hear challenges on teacher tenure and school funding. And if you care about California education, you should take the time to read those dissents. Unfortunately, they are not in the biggest type online, but here are the links:
On teacher tenure (the Vergara case): You’ll find it down the page on the right, in the column marked “Notes.”
On school funding (the Robles-Wong case): What is great is how Liu zeroes in on the correct target. California’s officials—and its constitution – make big promises about guaranteeing education. For example, here’s one constitutional clause: “A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.”
But its laws, practices and other parts of the same constitution, particularly a school funding guarantee that doesn’t guarantee sufficient funds for education, raise questions about whether the promise is a false one.
Liu writes: “The schoolchildren of California deserve to know whether their fundamental right to education is a paper promise or a real guarantee.”
Forgive the length of the following passage, and ride it out to the end:
This decline of California’s K-12 education system, as the student population has become more diverse, is well-documented. (See Carroll et al., Rand Corp., California’s K-12 Public Schools: How Are They Doing? (2005).) For two decades now, California has trailed most states on student achievement and education funding. (See Quality Counts, Education Week (1997-2016) [as of Aug. 22, 2016].) The allegations in the complaints, which we must accept as true at this stage of the litigation (Schifando v. City of Los Angeles (2003) 31 Cal.4th 1074, 1081), paint a sobering picture. According to one of the complaints (there are two in this case), “[d]espite having one of the most diverse and challenging student population [sic] in the nation, California per pupil spending in 2008-09 was $2, 131 below the national average, ranking the State 44th in the country. California’s per pupil spending was less than each of the largest 10 states in the nation, with New York spending almost $6, 000 more per pupil.” The staffing of California’s public schools reflects the state’s low spending levels. In 2007-2008, plaintiffs allege, “California ranked at or near the bottom in the nation in staffing ratios: 49th in total school staff; 47th in principals and assistant principals; 49th in guidance counselors; 50th in librarians; and 49th in access to computers. California educates over 1.7 million students more than Texas, but does so with 16, 700 fewer teachers.”
The test scores of California students, on average and disaggregated by subgroups, are among the lowest in the nation, as measured by the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress. On the 2009 assessment, one complaint alleges, “California tied for 47th of fourth grade reading and tied for 46th in eighth grade math. [¶] Academic performance is low for all subgroups of students. Even for students who are not academically disadvantaged, California ranks tied for 43rd in fourth grade reading and tied for 41st in eighth grade math. For California students whose parents graduated from college, the rank is still 40th in fourth grade reading and 39th in eighth grade math. . . . [¶]
California’s economically disadvantaged students rank 49th in fourth grade reading and 48th in eighth grade math when compared to economically disadvantaged students in other states.”….. Of 550, 000 students who enrolled in California public schools as ninth graders in the fall of 2004, only about one quarter completed the A G requirements and graduated eligible for a four-year college or university. [Rogers et al., California Educational Opportunity Report (2010) p. 7]. . . . [¶] Among those graduates who do gain admission into California’s university system, many are unprepared to succeed there. Sixty percent of freshmen in the California State University system are not proficient in either Math or English, or both, and beginning in 2012, will be required to take remedial courses in these subjects before they can begin college.”
And on the system of guarantees to address this, and why they haven’t measured up:
Proposition 98 funding is designed to increase with growth in the economy and K-12 attendance, but the funding level is not based on what resources are needed to provide a minimally adequate education to all students. The Local Control Funding Formula aims to distribute funds more equitably according to student needs, but it does not purport to prescribe adequate funding levels. In order to identify a concerted effort to examine the adequacy of California’s K-12 education system, one has to go back a full decade. In 2005, a bipartisan group of state leaders – the President Pro Tem of the Senate, the Speaker of the Assembly, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence, and the Secretary of Education – commissioned a comprehensive review of California’s school finance and governance systems. Funded by four major foundations, this initiative enlisted dozens of scholars throughout California and the nation, and resulted in over 20 research papers not only on resource adequacy and equity, but also on state and local governance, teacher policies, and data and information systems. (Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, Getting Down to Facts [as of Aug. 22, 2016].) This unprecedented body of research was completed in 2007, but its potential impact in the policymaking arena was largely eclipsed by a severe recession. Now that economic conditions have improved, there have been calls to renew the wide-ranging inquiry that began a decade ago. (Cal. School Boards Assn., California’s Challenge: Adequately Funding Education in the 21stCentury (2015).)
There’s much more, but Liu is starting to go at the Kafkaesque nature of California’s constitution, and its education system. The constitution effectively prohibits, by limiting funding, the sort of education that it promises.