The public schools enroll 6,237,000 students: 53% Latino, 25% White, 11% Asian, and 6% African-American, with 57% living in poverty, and 23% learning English. The State spends $9,258 per pupil. (Most recent NCES data)
“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.” Ca. Const., art. IX, § 1.
“The Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district at least six months in every year, after the first year in which a school has been established.” Ca. Const., art. IX, § 5.
The methods for funding the State’s school system are set forth in detail in Article IX, § 6 of the constitution, which has evolved through California’s initiative and referendum process.
In the 1970s, in Serrano v. Priest I & II, the California Supreme Court held that education is a fundamental right and wealth is a suspect class under the State constitution’s equal protection clause. The Court found California’s property-tax-based school funding system unconstitutional because it made the quality of a child’s education a function of community wealth. The Court ordered the Legislature to equalize funding among school districts, and in Serrano III, the Court found the revised funding system satisfied equal protection requirements.
A 2004 settlement in Williams v. California continues to require the State to fund building repairs and instructional materials and review conditions annually in specific schools in which plaintiffs had alleged deplorable conditions. A 2009 ACLU of Southern California report found significant improvements, but more recent cuts to State education funding may have impeded progress.
In 2010, two groups of plaintiffs filed Robles-Wong v. State and Campaign for Quality Education v. State, alleging that the State’s school funding system was unconstitutional because it failed to fund the cost of providing the education program mandated by the State, did not take into account the needs of disadvantaged students, and failed to provide all children with an equal opportunity to obtain an education that would prepare them to participate capably in the State’s democratic institutions, succeed economically, and live in California’s diverse society.
In 2016, after trial court and appellate court rulings dismissed the cases, the California Supreme Court denied plaintiffs’ request for review.
Also in 2016, in Vergara v. California , the California Court of Appeals held that the state statutes on teacher tenure, dismissal, and seniority do not deprive students of their right to equal protection under the California Constitution. As civil rights amici – Education Law Center, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Equal Justice Society, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles – urged in their brief, the Court held that plaintiffs failed to show the statutes are the cause of any group of students receiving an education inferior to other students. The amicus brief explained that adequate education funding is the foundation for enabling California school districts to provide effective teaching for all students. The California Supreme Court denied review of the appellate ruling, so this case has ended.