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The Schools Lawsuit That Could Blow Up California (And Why That's Good)

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Ian Waldie

    It is difficult to overstate the potential importance of a lawsuit filed Thursday against the state by school disricts, public school students, and a number of education organizations. This is news more important than anything that's been said in the governor's race or about any of the initiatives currently on the ballot.

    The lawsuit accuses the state's system of education funding (and by extension, the state's entire budget system, since approximately half of state spending goes to education) of being so complicated and fundamentally dysfunctional that it violates the constituitonal rights of California children to an education.

    If this lawsuit is successful, it would make something like a constitutional convention look small in scope. A judge could dynamite California's governing system and either permit the legislature and governor  to impose a new one in its place -- or impose one herself.

    The 58-page complaint is dead-on. The lawsuit takes on the state's two third-rail propositions -- the popular and voter-approved Prop 13 (the 1978 initiative which lowered property taxes and centralized funding and policy decisions on education at the state level) and Prop 98 (the 1988 initiative which helped create the impossible-for-mortals-to-understand three-part funding formula for education).

    The lawsuit argues that the system that resulted from Prop 13 and Prop 98 (which were overlaid on earlier court decisions and litigation) simply makes no sense. While the state has instituted standards for what students must learn to be properly educated, the funding system has formulas that are not based on those educational needs and realities. Instead, the formulas are based on economic factors and budget revenues that have absolutely nothing to do with education.

    The lawsuit puts it this way: "The state bases funding for its education program on formulas that were cobbled together decades ago for a very different educational program and very different student needs.”

    There's an irony in seeing the education lobby take on this system, since some of the same folks who are plaintiffs in this suit have spent the past two decades defending Prop 98. But it's good to see the education lobby finally realize that the Rube Goldberg contraption they were defending wasn't worth defending anymore. The California Teachers Association, the author of Prop 98, issued a press release supporting the lawsuit this morning.

    There is one disappointment in the reaction to the lawsuit.  Gov. Schwarzenegger, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, made clear through his education secretary that he intends to fight the lawsuit.

    Why would the governor want to defend the indefensible broken system -- the system he condemned in a press conference just this week? The lawsuit is a huge legacy opportunity for him. He ought to switch sides and say he agrees wholeheartedly with the suit. That way, the state and the plaintiffs might be able to negotiate the terms of a settlement (albeit with a judge looking over their shoulder).

    Yes, the governor is no fan of judges -- but the judiciary may provide him and his state a chance at a new beginning.