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Robles-Wong v. State of California frustrating conclusion to years of work 

On Aug. 22, 2016, in a narrow 4-3 vote, the California Supreme Court denied plaintiff’s petition for review in Robles-Wong v. California, declining to review the appellate court’s decision that there is no state constitutional guarantee to a certain level of education quality or education funding. The decision was a frustrating conclusion to years of work for advocates of an equitable and adequate education system.

In 2006, the California School Boards Association began researching the gap between California’s students’ fundamental right to education and the quality of education students were receiving in the state. This research led CSBA to file a lawsuit, Robles-Wong v. California, in 2010, along with the Association of California School Administrators, California State PTA, Alameda Unified School District, Alpine Union School District, Del Norte County Unified School District, Folsom Cordova Unified School District, Hemet Unified School District, Porterville Unified School District, Riverside Unified School District, San Francisco Unified School District, Santa Ana Unified School District, and approximately 60 individual students and families. Soon after, a similar lawsuit, Campaign for Quality Education v. California, was filed by individual student and parent plaintiffs and a number of advocacy groups. The cases were consolidated together to a single case on appeal.

The California Constitution guarantees students a fundamental right to education. Specifically, Article IX of the Constitution provides that education is “essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of people” and the “Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.” The Constitution guarantees that the “Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district."

In Robles-Wong, the plaintiffs claimed that California’s school finance system fails to provide all students access to an education that meets their fundamental right to education, and the state was violating its duty. At the time the suit was filed, California’s per-pupil spending, adjusted for regional cost differences, ranked 49th in the country. It has remained among the bottom six states according to the most recent data.

The denial of the petition to review by the Supreme Court means that the divided court will not step in to determine if the current system of education is adequate under our Constitution, but at the same time does not endorse the current school funding system as adequate. CSBA continues to believe that California is plainly not adequately supporting the education finance system needed to meet the performance mandates measuring students, and that the courts have a role in addressing this injustice. The dissenting justices articulated this judicial role well.

Appellate Court Justice Pollak, in his dissent, wrote that for our Constitutional promise of a fundamental right to education to have any meaning, the state’s school system “must provide some minimum qualitative level of education … in reality as well as on paper.”

Supreme Court Justice Liu, in his dissenting statement, noted that 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.” Justice Liu continued that “[i]t is against this backdrop that plaintiffs have turned to the courts for an elaboration of the Legislature’s duty to provide for a system of common schools. The schoolchildren who brought these actions do not claim they are entitled to a world class education. They ask only whether the California Constitution protects them from being deprived of a minimally adequate education. They are asking the judiciary, as the ultimate guarantor of constitutional rights, to define and safeguard their fundamental right to education.”

Justice Cúellar wrote in the second dissent that “[m]any of those kids who come from low-income families find themselves concentrated in particular schools or districts that, despite the best intentions, fail to deliver an education remotely worthy of the students they are serving. These realities make it all the more critical that the representative branches play the crucial role that belongs to them, but with greater clarity about the scope of the right to education – clarity only this court can provide.”

California’s students will continue to attend schools with inadequate funding, and too many of them will fail to receive the quality education needed to compete in the 21st century. As Justice Liu wrote, the Court’s “denial of review suspends, for now, the prospect of judicial elaboration of what the fundamental right to education entails. But it is possible that the complexion of the issue and, in turn, this court’s posture may change if our education system further stagnates or worsens.” CSBA plans to continue fighting for a more adequate and equitable education for all students regardless of the court’s judicial passivity.