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High Court Will Review Ruling on School Spending

September 03, 1986|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In what could be the final chapter in a landmark case, the California Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether the state is complying with a 1976 ruling requiring the elimination of substantial disparities in spending by local school districts.

The justices, in a brief order, said they would review a lower court ruling that found the current system of financing the education of the state's 4 million public school pupils reasonably fair and substantially equal.

Ten years ago, the court, in the widely celebrated case of Serrano vs. Priest, held California's school-finance system unconstitutional because its heavy reliance on local property taxes resulted in wealthier districts spending more per student than those in low-income areas.

Plaintiffs in the longstanding case contend that the new system still is resulting in significant spending disparities between some rich and poor districts that could be corrected with further state action.

"We're hoping that the state Supreme Court holds that the school finance system is still not complying with the 1976 ruling and therefore remains unconstitutional," said Richard Rothschild of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "We still don't have equalized financing."

State officials say that school financing is now essentially equal--and that the state has done everything "reasonably feasible" to comply with the court's mandate.

"The change has been quite spectacular," said Joseph Remcho, a San Francisco attorney representing the state. "It's really been a remarkable achievement to get where we are now."

The justices in 1976 held that the current system deprived students of equal protection of the law--and they gave the state six years to reduce spending disparities to "considerably less" than $100 per pupil annually.

The ruling was followed by scores of similar decisions in other states, touching off a nationwide movement away from local property taxes as the main source of school funding.

New Financing System

In California, a new school finance system has gradually gone into effect, and now the state provides the bulk of the money required for public school education. Currently, school districts spend a base amount averaging about $2,000 annually per pupil, attorneys say.

In further proceedings in the Serrano case, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lester E. Olson held in 1983 that by steadily increasing money for less wealthy districts, the state had achieved "significant parity" in school financing and thus complied with the 1976 mandate.

At that time, the judge noted, more than 93% of the state's pupils were attending schools receiving funds within the $100-per-pupil margin when that figure was adjusted for inflation.

Last May, the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles, ruling in Serrano and three other cases raising similar issues, upheld the ruling, taking the unusual step of adopting Olson's opinion as its own.

Appealed to High Court

Attorneys for the plaintiffs appealed to the state Supreme Court, saying there were still spending disparities of hundreds of dollars per pupil among some districts in the state and that action to bring about equality was required.

The state argued that any current disparities were comparatively insignificant and that by almost any measure--teacher salaries, course offerings or class size--educational opportunity was virtually equal throughout California.

The court's order Tuesday was signed by Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justices Stanley Mosk, Allen E. Broussard and Cruz Reynoso--the minimum number required for granting review.

The case is expected to be set for argument early next year, with a decision to follow.

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