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Supreme Court’s Refusal to Hear Robles-Wong Appeal Threatens to Perpetuate Opportunity Gap that Denies Millions of California Students a Fair Education


SACRAMENTO, Calif., (August 22, 2016) – Despite ample evidence that California’s education finance system violates article IX of the state constitution, the State Supreme Court announced today that it will not hear Robles-Wong v. State of California. The decision means that the Appeals Court ruling, which found that the California Constitution does not guarantee the right to an adequate level of education in terms of funding or quality, will stand.

“Millions of California children are disadvantaged, through no fault of their own, merely because they were born into poverty or because they attend a school with inferior resources. Today’s decision helps perpetuate a status quo that denies these students the basic promise of equal opportunity that is fundamental to American society,” said CSBA President Chris Ungar. “Everyone acknowledges that California’s children have an essential right to an education. For that right to mean something, it must guarantee a certain standard of quality. There are few issues of greater importance to society and the fact that the Court didn’t see fit to hear this case is not only disappointing but disturbing.”  

The California Supreme Court voted against hearing Robles-Wong by a 4-3 margin, with jurists Ming W. Chin, Goodwin H. Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar in the minority. Liu authored a stinging dissent in which he wrote that, “it is regrettable that this court, having recognized education as a fundamental right in a landmark decision 45 years ago (Serrano v. Priest (1971) 5 Cal.3d 584), should now decline to address the substantive meaning of that right. The schoolchildren of California deserve to know whether their fundamental right to education is a paper promise or a real guarantee. I would grant the petition to review.”

The plaintiffs in Robles-Wong, which included the California School Boards Association, Association of California School Administrators, the California State PTA, nine individual school districts and approximately 60 individual students and families, made two key claims when bringing the case in 2010:

  • The State of California currently operates a school finance system that prevents schools and school districts from providing all students access to an education that satisfies their fundamental interest in being prepared to obtain economic security and participate in our democratic institutions; and
  • The state is violating its duty to “provide for” a system of common schools and to “keep up and support” the system it has established.

In April 2016, a 2-1 Appeals Court ruling for the defendants stated that while the state is bound to provide for a “system of common schools” that students can attend for free, it has no legal duty to maintain a minimum level of funding or quality at those schools.

Today’s narrow decision against hearing the case means that any significant legal relief for California’s students suffering from an inadequate and inequitable education will have to come through the legislature without guidance from the courts, a decision that disappointed Justice Cúellar.

“It is especially important for California’s highest court to speak on this issue. Our state educates one-eighth of all public school students in the country,” Cúellar wrote in the second dissent. “Many 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. Respectfully, I would grant review.”

Article IX provides that the public school system shall “encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvements.” Six years ago, when Robles-Wong 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 outcomes paint a similarly dismal picture. As Liu wrote, “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.”

Liu’s dissent stated that Proposition 98 funding is not based on the resources needed to provide a minimally adequate education to all students. Similarly, while the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) aims to distribute funds – to some extent – according to student needs, it does not set a standard for adequate funding levels. The last serious attempt to determine adequacy dates back to 2007, immediately before the Great Recession, when a bipartisan group of scholars and state leaders produced “Getting Down to Facts: School Finance and Governance in California.” He also notes that “now that economic conditions have improved, there have been calls to renew the wide-ranging inquiry that began a decade ago” and references CSBA’s report “California’s Challenge: Adequately Funding Education in the 21st Century” as a prominent example of the work being done to determine what’s needed to provide an adequate education for all California students. 

Liu said that it is “unrealistic” to expect massive overnight improvement to the state’s public education system but adds that “some states have made significant gains in education over the past 20 years even as student achievement in California, despite some progress, has remained generally low.”

Last year, 79 percent of students from California’s economically disadvantaged households tested below state standards in math as compared to 48 percent of students from more affluent homes. In English language arts, the gap in student test scores related to economic status was 34 percent.

“It 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,” Liu continued. “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.”

CSBA is a nonprofit association representing nearly 1,000 PreK-12 school districts and county offices of education throughout California.