School Beat: A Lawsuit for Adequate Education Funding, Proposition 13 and More

by Lisa Schiff on May 27, 2010

The lawsuit California public school supporters have been waiting for is finally here. Last Thursday a coalition of individuals, school districts (including the San Francisco Unified School District) and educational organizations announced the filing of the California School Finance lawsuit, which has the goal of entirely refashioning public education funding in California.

While public school families and educators are well aware of the insufficiency of funding levels at our schools, the complex method of distributing resources is an equal factor contributing to the problems the state’s public education system faces. As a recent Public Policy Institute of California report details, California’s public school finance system is impossible to understand and leads to a variety of inequities, despite efforts to remove them. This finding echoes a similar conclusion drawn in the much cited 2005 Getting Down To Facts report commissioned by Governor Schwarzenegger in which researchers found that not only were funding levels inadequate, but the funding system itself serves as a barrier to fully use of funds and requires a complete overhaul.

The California School Finance lawsuit filed on May 20th tackles both funding levels and the funding system head-on by “requesting that the current education finance system be declared unconstitutional and that the state be required to establish a school finance system that provides all students an equal opportunity to meet the academic goals set by the State.” In particular, the lawsuit demands that the state do what so many of us have been arguing for so long – figure out how much it costs to implement the educational programs necessary for our children to reach California’s academic standards and use that as the basis for funding schools, while at the same time developing a new financial system for delivering that money.

The sound basis of the lawsuit is matched by its representation of the state. Southern, central and northern, rural and urban, small and large, districts of all types from all parts of the state are included. Organizations represent parents (California State PTA), school boards (California School Board Association) and administrators (California School Administrators). Notably absent are either of the statewide teachers unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. Hopefully they will be able to add their voices in soon.

This lawsuit comes in the midst of so many other education budget related activities. In San Francisco, work is going on right now to drum up support for Proposition A, the latest school facilities bond, which will make more schools physically safe. San Franciscans have generously supported the last two facilities bonds, and hopefully they will continue that trend with this one, as we work our way through the list of schools needing work.

Nationally, many of us were pinning our hopes on Senator Harkin’s emergency funding bill to prevent massive teacher layoffs across the country. Dubbed the “Keep Our Educators Working” act, Harkin has just this week withdrawn support for the bill in light of resistance from Republicans. While this is a serious blow to all states, the House of Representatives has taken up the challenge. Rep. David Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin, is reportedly planning to introduce the legislation today.

The new bill has more restrictions on it, particularly aligning with educational requirements that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been pushing, such as enhanced data systems and drastic “turn-around” models for low-performing schools, so it is less of a gift than the original bill was. Despite the above requirements, the bill is being supported by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who are working for its passage. Secretary Duncan supported the original bill, and supports this version as well.

A much longer-term financial strategy, but one that is absolutely needed for education and just about any other public good under California’s sun, is reforming Proposition 13. The tactic most widely discussed is to separate out corporations from individuals (the so-called “split roll”). This would leave intact the protections for homeowners that the bill is most known for, but would ensure that real estate owning companies pay their fair share and can’t take advantage of measures designed to help senior citizens on fixed incomes. San Francisco’s own Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has been pushing legislation (AB 2492) to do just this and it’s making progress. This will be something to keep an eye on going forward.

A somewhat quiet effort to push the split roll forward has been sponsored by San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, with his Close the Loophole campaign. While unfortunately it is nearly impossible to tell this from the website, Close the Loophole aims to educate as many people about what the problems with Proposition 13 are, why the split roll would make a difference, and give people an opportunity to work on changing law together. Given the misunderstandings about Proposition 13 and the significant dollars that will no doubt be spent on keeping it as is, this on the ground, person-by-person method is a necessary complement to any legislative effort.

The California School Finance lawsuit and work to revamp Proposition 13 have two very important things in common, namely a focus on making significant structural changes in core fiscal areas in California. Such a deep look into the budget and revenue processes in our state is the only alternative to a more equitable, stable financial future, not just for those of us immediately concerned with public schools, but for everyone in this state.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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