Another era of complicated state K-12 system lawsuits?

That’ll teach me to write last month about why no one is challenging Florida’s large voucher programs: by the end of the month, those voucher programs became part of an amended complaint filed by the lawyers in a “sweeping lawsuit” claiming Florida’s K-12 system is currently being run unconstitutionally (sweeping is the word used by the Orlando Sentinel‘s Leslie Postal). Then a judge in Alabama ruled that state’s new voucher program unconstitutional. Earlier in the month, a state judge in North Carolina threw out that state’s new law on teacher job security.

And then the Parental Unit of all State Education Trial Court Decisions: today, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued a ruling in the trial over teacher job security, in which plaintiffs alleged that the job security provisions in California education law is an unconstitutional violation of that state’s children’s rights.

Are we in a new era of lawsuits targeting state education systems?

I’ll let the education law and finance researchers duke that question out, but I do have a few bits of perspective on both the spate of stories and today’s trial court decision:

  1. In none of these cases has the state’s highest court ruled on legal issues. Florida’s lawsuit hasn’t even hit a trial yet, while the other rulings are at the lowest level of each state’s judicial system. Given the issues involved, I expect all will reach the respective states’ supreme court or equivalent.
  2. What matters at the trial level is the factual record in the case, if the trial focused on factual claims. (Plenty of trials on government actions are not about factual practices but claims that the existence of a law is unconstitutional, regardless of potential application.) The California case did have a substantial portion of time and evidence speaking to the factual claims of both sides. In most cases, higher courts focus on matters of law, not fact. Unless there were gross errors, I expect that L.A. Superior Court Judge Treu’s factual conclusions will stand and be the basis for discussion through the appeals. (No, I have not had time to read the opinion; I’ve been on the road for seven hours today.)
  3. Historically in comparison with other states, California’s court system has been far more friendly to claims that its public schools operate unconstitutionally. This is the state of Serrano v. Priest (1971), which used the state constitution to rule that the funding system was unconstitutional before other states (many of which did not accept an equity argument). It may be the bleeding edge for a set of court battles over teacher tenure; it might well be an outlier. Insert your own platitude here.
  4. Even when there is a “final” decision, the aftermath of the decision can be as important as what judges decide. Think desegregation. Think funding lawsuits.1 The Vergara case in California (the one with the trial-court ruling today) is likely to be one of those complicated aftermaths.
  5. State-level lawsuits have a “lumpy” pattern: some years there is much more activity than others. Just remember: Category-5 Hurricane Andrew was the first named storm of the 1992 tropical hurricane season. So I would pay a little less attention to lumpiness.

In other words, to the question asked in the title, I have no particular wisdom, just intense interest and curiosity.

Addenda: 1) Initially, I erroneously called it an adequacy decision; the legal framework of the trial-court judge is equal protection in the state constitution. 2) See Charles Taylor Kerchner’s Education Week commentary for more “hey, this isn’t blowing up the house” perspective.

 

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Notes

  1. Since I am moving to Arizona, I am trying to catch up with the recent history of battles over funding systems in Arizona. []