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Second School Finance Lawsuit Hits California

California's school finance system came under a new legal challenge today, as advocates for low-income families and minority students filed a lawsuit in Alameda County that seeks to scrap the current method of funding public schools. The current system is unconstitutional, they argue, and inequitable.

This is the second suit brought against the state for its school funding system in as many months. In May, several school districts, along with parents, students, and education groups like the California School Boards Association, sued the state for much the same reason. That suit was also filed in Alameda County Superior Court and lawyers in both cases hope that the same judge will hear their cases.

Lawyers for the new lawsuit say they consider their case to be complementary to the Robles Wong v. California case filed in May, but they point to a couple of key differences. One is that the plaintiffs in their suit are poor families and their children, or community organizations that represent them. Another difference is that their suit focuses not only on funding equity in K-12, but in preschool as well.

Besides asking for a judge to scrap the current finance system and order state legislators and the governor to devise a new one, the lawsuit is also seeking other reforms that plaintiffs say are necessary to achieve equity. One is a more robust data system that helps the public track how dollars are spent on public education and the other is a system for ensuring that effective teachers are available to all students, especially those in the most disadvantaged schools.

"The California constitution very clearly places education as the first and most important duty of the government," said Rohit Singla, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, in a conference call with reporters earlier today. "It's beyond a doubt that the state is not meeting its obligations."

The two school finance suits come in the midst of one of the most damaging recessions in California, which has forced state lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to make deep cuts to spending across all sectors of government. Public schools have taken a roughly $17 billion hit over the last two years. State spending on K-12 in fiscal 2010 still accounted for about 37 percent of California's $91.4 billion overall budget

California, with K-12 enrollment of 6 million public students, ranks near the bottom of the 50 states for its per-pupil funding, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which determined that the state spent $8,164 per pupil in 2007, more than $2,000 less than the national average of $10,557. That number, of course, doesn't reflect the impact that the recession has had on per-pupil spending in California.

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