Arthur E. Wise


On August 31, 1971, the California Supreme Court, in Serrano v. Priest tentatively concluded that California's public school financing system denies children the equal protection of the laws because it produces substantial disparities among school districts in the amount of revenue available for education. In the words of the Court:

We are called upon to determine whether the California public school financing system, with its substantial dependence on local property taxes and resultant wide disparities in school revenue, violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We have determined that this funding scheme invidiously discriminates against the poor because it makes the quality of a child's education a function of the wealth of his parents and neighbors. Recognizing as we must that the right to an education in our public schools is a fundamental interest which cannot be conditioned on wealth, we can discern no compelling state purpose necessitating the present method of financing. We have concluded, therefore, that such a system cannot withstand constitutional challenge and must fall before the equal protection clause.

The problems to which the case was addressed can be simply put. One school district in California expended only $577.49 to educate each of its pupils in 1968-69 while another expended $1,231. 72 per pupil. The principal source of this inequity was the difference in local assessed property valuation per child: in the first school district the figure was $3, 706 per child while in the second it was $50,885-a ratio of one to thirteen. Moreover, in the first, citizens paid a school tax of $5.48 per $100 of assessed valuation while in the second residents paid only $2.38 per hundred-a ratio of over two to one.

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