California Court Rejects Innovative Equal Protection Theory

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California Court Rejects Innovative Equal Protection Theory

Dealing plaintiffs another setback in their attempts to establish a constitutional right to a quality education, Judge Steven A. Brick of Alameda County Superior Court last week dismissed for the second time, with leave to amend, the complaints in two major education suits in California—Robles Wong v. State of California and Campaign for Quality Education v. State of California. In doing so, the court held that the Plaintiffs failed to state valid equal protection claims when they alleged that the State denies many California schoolchildren equal access to the resources necessary to have a fair opportunity to achieve state-mandated educational standards.

Plaintiffs’ initial complaints contained both adequacy and equity claims. Last January, Judge Brick dismissed the plaintiffs’ adequacy claims. At the same time, he provided plaintiffs an opportunity to amend their complaints and reframe their lawsuits to drop the adequacy claims and restate the equal protection claims. The January decision seemed to leave open the possibility that the court might interpret equal protection broadly to incorporate some substantive quality education dimension in addition to equality in funding concepts. Specifically, the Court said at that time:

Having legislatively established content and assessment standards, a system that does not provide an equal opportunity for all students to succeed in learning the required content may, under Serrano I and II, be viewed as violating the equal protection guaranty.

See California Court Allows Broadly Framed Equity Claims to Continue; Status of Adequacy Allegations Remains Unclear. An expansive reading of the equal protection clause would be important in the California context, where the general low level of funding for public education throughout the state is the major issue; since the ruling of the California Supreme Court in Serrano v. Priest in 1976, there have not been huge disparities in the per capita amounts that school districts receive from basic public funding allocations.

In amending their complaints, the plaintiffs alleged that the system “does not distribute sufficient funds to the plaintiff districts to enable the districts to provide the resources…needed for all children to have a fair opportunity to achieve state-mandated achievement goals…”  The court decisively rejected this approach, holding that it would entertain only traditional equal protection claims that simply alleged that students in poorer school districts were “receiving fewer educational resources compared to most other students in most other districts.” The judge did allow the plaintiffs leave to amend their complaints to allege further facts that would support an equal protection claim as the court has now defined it.

Plaintiffs have until August 25, 2011 to submit amended complaints. They may choose instead to file appeals and ask the appellate court to reinstate their original adequacy and equity claims.

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