The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"It still holds true that man is most uniquely human when he turns obstacles into opportunities."... ...Eric Hoffer.

Commentary of the Day - October 19, 2001:  The Sleeper Education Story of the Year - Williams v. California

There is a case working its way through the California courts that has received almost no attention in the mainstream media.  Yet, this case promises to change forever the landscape of public education in California.  Williams v. California is a class action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the State of California and its Superintendent of Public Instruction, Delaine Easton.  The suit alleges that conditions in certain schools within 18 school districts in California are so bad that they make it impossible for children attending these schools to receive an education that meets the standards set by the state constitution and California law.

The litany of deficiencies listed in the complaint range from inadequate restroom facilities, vermin infested classrooms, leaky roofs, broken heating and ventilation systems, and overcrowded classrooms to insufficient and outdated textbooks and teachers who lack even minimal credentials.  Essentially all of the schools in question are located in the poorest neighborhoods, and are populated predominantly by minority students.  They are found in both urban and rural areas of the state.

The suit alleges that it is primarily the responsibility of the state government rather than the individual school districts to ensure that all students can attend schools that meet minimum standards for health and safety, that have adequate levels of books and supplies, and that are staffed by competent teachers.

The suit is such a political hot potato that Gray Davis, the latest in a series of California chief executives who have run on an education platform, has hired the high-profile law firm of O'Melveny & Myers to defend the state rather than rely on the services of the state attorney-general's office.  According to a recent article in The San Francisco Chronicle by Nanette Asimov and Lance Williams, the cost of the litigation to the taxpayers so far has exceeded $2.5 million and no trial date has been set so far.  Attorney-general Bill Lockyer had estimated that it would have cost his office about $6 million to try the case, and that would be about one-third the cost of using the private law firm.  By the time the litigation runs its course, O'Melveny & Myers likely will collect some $18 million from the taxpayers.

To date, much to the Governor's chagrin, all of this high-priced legal talent has had little success in deflecting the plaintiffs' case.  Even though O'Melveny & Myers lawyers spent 24 days this past summer in deposition hearings grilling witnesses who ranged in age from 8 to 17 in an attempt to show that the deplorable conditions in their schools really didn't prevent them from receiving an education, these students held their ground and testified in detail about the effect substandard conditions had on their education.  At the same time, a suit filed against the 18 districts by the Davis administration in an attempt to shift the responsibility for the substandard conditions to the individual districts has been thrown out of court.

In a further defeat for the Davis administration the San Francisco judge who is hearing the case, Peter J. Busch, recently ruled that the class action suit can be extended to the entire state.  This means that students in any school district with similar conditions can join the suit, and seek relief from the state.  It is by no means certain that the plaintiffs will prevail in their suit.  But if they do prevail, the state government rather than individual school districts will be held liable for maintaining minimum standards in all of California's public schools.

In a sense this would be the ultimate unintended consequence of Proposition 13.  The Howard Jarvis initiative was promoted as a plan to reduce the property tax burden of the average homeowner.  However, because it allowed property to be assessed at current market value when it changed hands it ended up being more of a boon for the owners of commercial property who typically hold property much longer than does the average homeowner.  To compensate for the loss of property tax revenue to school districts, the state over the years has assumed more of the burden of funding local school districts.  Naturally, along with this shift in funding more control of the K-12 system has migrated to Sacramento -- probably not what Jarvis had intended.

Now it appears that there is a much better than even chance that the outcome of Williams v. California will shift even more of the responsibility for local schools to state government.  Again, not exactly what the supporters of Proposition 13 had in mind!

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