A California appeals court is expected to rule soon in a case that claims that the state's system of funding public schools in unconstitutional.
If the plaintiffs in the case prevail, observers say, it could prompt a groundbreaking move towards focusing on providing schools the amount that it would take to prepare students for college and beyond.
The case is a consolidation of two 2010 cases -- Campaign for Quality Education vs. California and Robles-Wong vs. California. Both suits were dismissed in Alameda County Court in 2011, and the state appeals court combined the suits into one when they appealed.
The California constitution guarantees the right to a free publicly funded education, but it's less clear whether the constitution requires the state to hold its public schools to a certain level of quality.
Right now, California's funding system is complex, but it essentially “delivers a minimum amount of funding, essentially based on what we did last year, with some adjustments,” said John Affeldt, a lawyer with Public Advocates, one of several groups that filed the lawsuits. (The suits' plaintiffs include one of the state's teachers unions, associations representing the state's school boards and administrators, the state Parent-Teacher Association, a group of non-profits representing low-income, minority families, and more than 60 individuals.)
Creating a funding system around what it costs to prepare each student for college or a career would ensure “every student can succeed in the work force and succeed as an engaged citizen in our democracy,” Affeldt said.
But the county court dismissed that claim, saying that the state legislature can fund schools how it chooses and the constitution does not demand that schools meet any bar for excellence.
And beyond the constitutional issues, the case also raises questions about what it means for schools to prepare students for college and to participate fully in civic life, and how much that costs.
NEW FUNDS, BUT STILL STRESSED
At Whittier High School, the increased focus on graduation is apparent in the classroom. One a recent afternoon, six school administrators walked into an eleventh-grade history class to have a serious talk with the students. The school's juniors are earning many more Ds and Fs than students in other grades, the administrators told the students.
"We’re not freaking out but we do have a concern," said assistant principal Tim Liggett. "And we feel like the mature thing to do is to have kind of a conversation about it, just being real honest about what our concern is."
The scene resembled an intervention, and that was the point. Principal Lori Eshilian said efforts to send more students to college have meant many more of these kinds of meetings with students, plus more counselors and peer tutors to help all students – not just the school's large percentage of students who live in poverty or who are learning English.
Those efforts have paid off: Over the past decade, the school's college-going rate has increased from 28 percent to 58 percent, Eshilian said.
But the changes have also cost money. And there's still a long way to go, and more funds could help add new programs and relieve the stress of staff pushed to their limit, Eshilian said.
“Would I like the money to have college age tutors or mentors or people after school to help? Yeah," she said. "Because I have teachers working their tail off all day and staying until five o’clock at night and helping in interventions."
Schools like Whittier have benefitted from a 2013 overhaul of California’s funding system that increased per pupil funding and added significantly more money for schools with high proportions of student in poverty, English learners, and in foster care. Those additional funds are called Local Control Funding Formula.
But University of Southern California school finance expert Larry Picus said that even with those increases, the benefits that schools like Whittier could see from additional funds are real.
“There’s considerable evidence that despite the efforts we’ve made as a state in recent years to improve funding for schools, we still have a long way to go to reach an adequately funded school system,” Picus said.
HOW MUCH DOES "COLLEGE-READY" COST?
An added wrinkle to the debate over adequate school funding is that there's no objective standard naming how much it costs to get kids to college, and that bar means different things to different people.
“We’re sending students to Harvard, to Stanford, to Berkeley, to UCLA, we’re sending a couple of kids to Yale this year,” said San Marino Unified Superintendent Alex Cherniss.
Residents in his affluent community believe college readiness is providing tutoring and creating classes that are as rigorous as those in four-year universities.
To meet that goal, Cherniss said, San Marino residents raised about $6 million last year for public schools through a parcel tax and a non-profit foundation. Those funds help pay for a new class at San Marino High School called Honors Humanities Seminar. An English teacher and an art teacher lead students through art and literature lessons supplemented with visits to the Huntington Library and online lessons.
The class gives students college-level preparation before they set foot on a college campus. It’s part of San Marino Unified’s costly goal, Cherniss said, to prepare students for college.
“At times it is frustrating that we’re forced to raise all our money locally where other districts may get that money from the state,” he said.
Researcher Picus said Cherniss' feeling that the state's funding system is "robbing Peter to pay Paul" is grounded in some reality because the base funding for all California public school students is still low. The funding increases of recent years are only making up for the severe funding cuts during the recent recession and California remains near the bottom of the list of per pupil funding among all the states.
"I think in California, at the end of the day we probably have to have additional resources to really make the system work as well as we would like it to" for students in affluent and poor communities, Picus said.
FUNDING CONSEQUENCES BEYOND K-12
One bar for college-readiness that already exists is the entrance exams students take when they enroll in many public colleges and universities to determine whether they are ready for college-level coursework or if they must take non-credit remedial courses.
At California State University Dominguez Hills, 82 percent of first-year students last fall needed to take remedial courses in English, math or both subjects, said the school's vice president of academic affairs, Ellen Junn. And the campus' "summer bridge" program serving students who arrive academically deficient now enrolls roughly 1,300 students, at a cost of about $1 million.
So, Junn said, increased investment in college-readiness efforts at the K-12 level could reap financial benefits down the line.
“Yes, that would be a nice consequence," Junn said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Robles-Wong. KPCC regrets the error.