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California's Student Lawsuit Exposes Education Disparities in America's Classrooms

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Rarely do education-related lawsuits hit so close to home for me personally and professionally. But the lawsuit filed last week by over 60 students and several education organizations (Robles-Wong v. CA) against the State of California and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is one that strikes a particularly resounding chord.

As a former California educator for nearly 30 years, it is inspiring to witness the newfound courage among students of my state in challenging California's inequitable education system. Their goal is to compel California to study the actual costs of providing education services to "all children with all needs."

On the need for this, I couldn't agree more. California is falling far short of providing each child with the education he/she deserves. The lawsuit calls for the complete transformation of California's finance system -- a reform effort similar to the one I championed in this Congress when I created the Educational Opportunity and Equity Commission, now housed within the U.S. Department of Education and readying its rollout.

The Commission's intent, by initiating a national dialogue on the topic of educational equity, is to ferret out a fix for the Californias of our country. I fought hard to establish it because our education finance structure is outdated and relies on factors like average daily attendance, average costs for "regular" students, and concentrations of low-income, special-education and English-language-learner students. Outdated systems like California's are inexcusable in an economically recessed nation falling behind globally.

California's case is demonstrative of a problem that persists nationally. The plaintiffs in Robles-Wong v CA claim that California has created a pattern of disparities that fails many of our children, some more than others, by not documenting the costs of delivering the constitutionally-required education program. Robles-Wong v. CA concludes that the state's education finance system is irrational, unstable, unpredictable, and has made no attempt to align funding policies and mechanisms. Sadly, California is not alone. Most states, in fact, struggle with similar disparities.

If California wants to correct its incoherency, and quickly, it first needs to conduct an analysis of all physical and personnel costs associated with schooling in order to meet state-prescribed standards. Secondly, it must conduct an analysis of the costs associated with varying learning needs of each student. Thirdly, it must develop an education finance system that is based on the actual costs for both schooling and student needs.

Rep Michael Honda (CA-15) is a former teacher, principal and school board member and serves on the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

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