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When a Good Public Education Becomes a Constitutional Right

by Joyce Appleby on Jul 10, 2007

Joyce Appleby

California has something to offer the nation as it comes to terms with last month’s Supreme Court ruling invalidating school desegregation programs in Louisville and Seattle. In their five-to-four decision, the justices said that public school systems cannot recognize a student’s race in devising plans to achieve or maintain segregation. But the problem of equality of education, which Brown v. Board of Education addressed 47 years ago, remains. It’s time for some fresh thinking.

With the average white student attending a public school where 80 percent of the student body is white and black students going to ones that are 70 percent black, many reformers have turned to upgrading all schools to achieve the elusive goal of equal education. This is what makes the Williams v. California case so interesting. Filed on the 40th anniversary of Brown on May 17, 2000, the class-action suit claimed that the State of California was denying thousands of California students their fundamental right to an education by withholding the basic tools necessary to achieve that goal.

A cluster of civil rights organizations, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, argued that current textbooks, clean and safe classrooms, and qualified teachers were more than desirable objectives. With impressive boldness, they declared that they were fundamental rights under the California constitution, applying to all children, regardless of race.

Under litigation for more than four years, Williams v. California has a surprising political history as well. Gray Davis, who was governor in 2000, decided to fight the suit and retained a private law firm which ultimately spent $22 million on it. During the successful recall effort against Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger surprised the litigants by announcing his support for the plaintiffs. Shortly after Schwarzenegger’s successful bid for the governorship, the litigants announced a settlement. Six weeks later, Schwarzenegger signed into law five bills implementing the settlement agreement.

Ending decades of neglect and indifference, these laws set standards for access to books, teachers and clean and safe facilities. Even more important, they provided easy ways to file complaints and measure compliance.

Achieving such a sweeping improvement in California’s public schools didn’t come cheap. Over the first four years, beginning in 2005, $800 million is being spent on emergency repairs in the lowest performing schools. An additional $200 million will go toward innovations in teacher recruitment and instructional material. On its own, the state department of education streamlined requirements for out-of-state teachers to earn California credentials to increase the pool.

Of course the law of unintended consequences was not suspended. The settlement called for books for each student. Some school districts pinched pennies and interpreted this provision narrowly. They bought enough algebra books, for instance, for a class size of 30. Students yielded their textbooks to the members of the next class. And homework? Well, it was eliminated. It took an additional law to clarify the right of all students to have their personal copies of books for work both in class and at home.

The power of the Williams decision lies in its establishment of a constitutional right to a meaningful education. Ever since the 1840s, when the United States began building public education systems across the land, their funding has been a political football. As long as children don’t vote and teachers concentrate on job issues, meeting reasonable standards has depended upon the good will of elected officials, always a variable. If other states follow California’s lead, a major step toward equality of opportunity will have been taken. Then Williams vs. California will join Brown vs. Board of Education in the civil rights “hall of fame.”

Joyce Appleby, UCLA emerita professor, is author of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism" (2010).