Law professor Bill Koski takes the state’s education finance system to court

Stanford Law Professor Bill Koski

For school-aged students around the Bay, these are the final weeks of the school year. Summer vacation is around the corner, but that doesn’t mean families are likely to get a holiday from the bad news about their schools. Headlines about massive staff and program cuts, student protests and administrators scrambling for a slice of the vanishing budget pie continue to dominate education news.

The fall of California’s schools, though, reflects more than just this year’s massive budget deficit. Public education in the state has been in decline for decades now, a downward spiral that some educators trace to the way California funds its schools.

Now, the state PTA and dozens of students and school districts say how the goverrnment pays for public education is not only ineffective but also unconstitutional. They have filed a lawsuit demanding Sacramento set up a finance system that will enable schools to meet the academic goals set out in the state constitution. Professor Bill Koski, Director of the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford law school is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. He sat down with KALW’s Ben Trefny.

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BILL KOSKI: To put it quite simply, it’s irrational, it’s unstable and it’s insufficient to do the job, and the job being, giving each and every kid in California an opportunity to be successful in the 21st century. And the school finance system is irrational, or unsound, because it makes no connection between the programmatic demands that the state places on schools and children themselves. Nor does it take into account the very diverse and challenging needs of California’s children. That’s irrational.

To be more specific about it, the State of California, as you may well know, has in place a set of educational content standards for what all kids should know and be able to and these are rigorous standards, these are 21st century standards by any measure. And they’ve aligned everything to those standards - teacher training programs, accountability programs, testing, assessment and the like. They have done professional development  around these standards, the program is aligned to these standards.

The problem is, the state hasn’t bothered to figure out how much it would actually cost to ensure success on those standards. So, that would be a first step.

California has diverse and challenging needs - English learners, high percentage of kids in poverty, all need a lot. So the system is broken. And it’s unconstitutional for a number of different reasons, but one primary reason is that it is so broken, it fails to deliver to children in schools so badly, that it violates kids’ fundamental right to an education that we have in our California constitution.

In addition to that, the State fails to keep up and support of its schools, its system of common schools, the way that the Constitution demands of it. It’s not a system at all, in fact, because the funding, and the finance system, is not aligned with the rest of the program. Those are the constitutional problems and that’s what we’re asking the court to step in and fix.

BEN TREFNY: So you’re saying that it’s not even constitutional in meeting basic education requirements, let alone the new 21st century standards that it’s trying to maintain?

KOSKI: That’s correct. And, one can talk about “What is a basic education?” But in my view, at the very least, a basic education is ensuring proficiency on those core content standards and ensuring that kids are performing well in that regard. We know kids are not, but even beyond that, look at what’s happening to our schools. Art is getting cut, music is getting cut, PE is getting cut. Forget about technical education, which was supposed to be the wave of the future, ensuring that kids were receiving what we might have called vocational education some time ago. But now, having kids work-ready, coming out of high school is going to be really important. Schools can’t afford to do that.

TREFNY: So, what would you like to happen? What would you like the courts to decide in this lawsuit?

KOSKI: We want the court to basically outline very basic principles for the legislature. That is, ensuring that the finance system is aligned with the programmatic demands and also takes into account student needs.

So the request is actually fairly simple: We want the courts to declare the current educational funding system unconstitutional. It’s a declaration saying that what we have now needs to be scrapped. And then, the affirmative relief, the injunctive relief that we’re asking for is that the court demand that the legislature go back to the drawing board and design a new school funding system based on very basic parameters again: Alignment with the programmatic demands and take into account student needs so that all kids have an opportunity to be successful. That kicks it back into the political arena, we understand that, but we do think, though, that the politics at that point will have changed. There will be many more voices at the table, to be heard in Sacramento. And more important, our great hope is that it will give the opportunity for legislators who want to do the right thing vis-a-vis California’s school funding to do the job that they want to do.

TREFNY: That’s Bill Koski, he’s an attorney and he is working pro bono with the Bingham McCutchen law firm on the lawsuit Robles-Wong v. the State of California. So can California afford the programs that it has enacted for schools to follow?

KOSKI: That’s an excellent question, and it’s the inevitable question. If we look at per-pupil funding in California on a cost-adjusted basis, that is, accounting for the cost of living and labor market prices and the like in California, we rank 47th in the nation. California spends in the neighborhood of $8000 per student whereas a state like New York spends about $14,000 per student.

I don’t mean to make such a fine point of it, but if you take $6000 per kid, multiply it times a class room of 30, you can afford more teachers and at the end day, higher quality, more instructional time. More instruction, is the key here. Because right now, so much of the money is tied up in what are called Categorical Programs, that is, programs earmarked for certain things that may not make sense anymore.

TREFNY: Like what?

KOSKI: Let’s take something that happened during the boon period. There was this thing called “class size reduction” in K through 3, wildly popular and may in fact be...

TREFNY: ...a max of 20 students per class?

KOSKI: Correct - in kindergarten through third grade. Wildly popular - teachers, parents, they love it. Why? Because, well, it seems that your children have more attention being paid to them. The problem is, we did it very poorly. We didn’t have the capacity, either teaching capacity or physical facilities capacity, to build that out. And there is not a tremendous amount of evidence that it’s been super helpful. So, maybe we need to revisit how we do class size reduction, where we do class size reduction, be a little smarter about that sort of thing.

TREFNY: Do you have an example of a Bay Area school district that, because of financial concerns, cannot meet the requirements of the state?

KOSKI: Two of our plaintiff districts right here in the Bay Area meet that example. And we will have the superintendent from Alameda Unified, one of our plaintiff school districts, tell the court and tell people, Look, here are all the things I’m doing, here are all the things that I know work in my school district - this summer program, this after-school intervention program, this gifted and talented program - I had to cut them all. I can’t afford them anymore. If I was able to use my money wisely and if I was given the sufficient amount of money to get the job done, I could serve all my kids. Right now, I can’t. You’re going to hear our superintendents say that, our chief business officers say that, our principals say that.

How do you feel about the education lawsuit? Does the whole school financing system need a make-over? Let us know at 415-264-7106 or send us an email.