Serrano v. Priest (Serano I) (1971)

California’s public-school, general-fund financing structure violates equal protection and is invalid because education is a “fundamental” right under the California and US Constitutions, and because the “wealth” of a school district is a “suspect classification”.

Citation: 5 Cal.3d 584 (1971) See also: Serrano v. Priest, 18 Cal.3d 728 (1976) (Serrano II); and Serrano v. Priest, 20 Cal.3d 25 (1977) (Serrano III)
Court: California Supreme Ct.
Date decided: Aug 30, 1971
Longer case name: JOHN SERRANO, JR., et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. IVY BAKER PRIEST, as State Treasurer, etc., et al., Defendants and Respondents.
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:State
State of origin: California
Topic(s):Equal protection, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental rights, and School finance
Lists:Important cases
Attorneys:David A. Binder, Michael H. Shapiro, William T. Rintala, Harold W. Horowitz and Sidney M. Wolinsky for Plaintiffs and Appellants.
Others involved:Kenneth Hecht, Peter B. Sandmann, Kathrine Sears, Anne Unverzagt, Louis Garcia, Mario Obledo, Alan Exelrod, Michael Mendelson, Joe Ortega, Stephen D. Sugarman, John E. Coons, David L. Kirp, Mark G. Yudof, Paul R. Dimond, Kenneth F. Phillips, Marc I. Hayutin, A.L. Wirin, Fred Okrand, Laurence R. Sperber, Paul N. Halvonik, Charles C. Marson, Ephraim Margolin, Irving G. Breyer, Milton Marks, George R. Moscone, Willie Brown, Jr., John Burton, John Francis Foran and Leo T. McCarthy as Amici Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.
More info: Serrano I at Google Scholar Serrano II at Google Scholar Serrano III at Google Scholar overview article on all 3 cases Students Matter overview

Case Importance

From ( “Serrano v. Priest — which spanned three California Supreme Court opinions between 1971 and 1977, trial court rulings in 1974 and 1983, Proposition 13 and numerous legislative enactments — profoundly altered financing for public education, shifting from local to state controlled school financing…. Serrano originated in Los Angeles County Superior Court as a class action brought by public-interest attorneys on behalf of a class of all California public-school pupils. The case reflected pressing issues of its time: the fundamentality of public education, the struggle of haves vs. have-nots and the battle against discrimination. In hindsight, however, Serrano was at best incomplete and arguably a failure at accomplishing equality in education…. The Serrano I decision represents both the strengths and weaknesses of judicial resolution of complex social issues. Lacking sufficient staff and the ability to gather public comment like the Legislature, the court essentially was captive to the litigants’ briefing and evidence. Consequently, the court focused only on recurring general-purpose income and never dealt with the system of how school districts fund capital expenditures, facilities and infrastructure costs — which to this day depend on the very inequities the court found so objectionable about recurring income…. Serrano I revolutionized equal-protection analysis of wealth as a suspect classification by extending it for the first time to government institutions, that is, school districts…. Serrano I’s federal underpinnings soon left. Only two years after Serrano I, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973), rejected its reasoning in interpreting the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Serrano’s federal constitutional analysis thus became a “dead letter.” CONCLUSION: Perhaps the best measure of Serrano’s impact is not the empirical one of whether the opinion itself actually defined, let alone achieved, educational equality. Many educators would argue that it was a well-intentioned step in the right direction but that it never addressed the truly complex issues at hand. Nevertheless, it played its part in the revision of school finance in the past three decades.”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)

From the opinion

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.
Plaintiffs, who are Los Angeles County public school children and their parents, brought this class action for declaratory and injunctive relief against certain state and county officials charged with administering the financing of the California public school system. Plaintiff children claim to represent a class consisting of all public school pupils in California, “except children in that school district, the identity of which is presently unknown, which school district affords the greatest educational opportunity of all school districts within California.” Plaintiff parents purport to represent a class of all parents who have children in the school system and who pay real property taxes in the county of their residence.

Defendants are the Treasurer, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Controller of the State of California, as well as the Tax Collector and Treasurer, and the Superintendent of Schools of the County of Los Angeles. The county officials are sued both in their local capacities and as representatives of a class composed of the school superintendent, tax collector and treasurer of each of the other counties in the state.
In sum, we find the allegations of plaintiffs’ complaint legally sufficient and we return the cause to the trial court for further proceedings. We emphasize, that our decision is not a final judgment on the merits. We deem it appropriate to point out for the benefit of the trial court on remand (see Code Civ. Proc., § 43) that if, after further proceedings, that court should enter final judgment determining that the existing system of public school financing is unconstitutional and invalidating said system in whole or in part, it may properly provide for the enforcement of the judgment in such a way as to permit an orderly transition from an unconstitutional to a constitutional system of school financing. (17) As in the cases of school desegregation (see Brown v. Board of Education (1955) 349 U.S. 294 [99 L.Ed. 1083, 75 S.Ct. 753]) and legislative reapportionment
*619 (see Silver v. Brown (1965) 63 Cal.2d 270, 281 [46 Cal. Rptr. 308, 405 P.2d 132]), a determination that an existing plan of governmental operation denies equal protection does not necessarily require invalidation of past acts undertaken pursuant to that plan or an immediate implementation of a constitutionally valid substitute. (18) Obviously, any judgment invalidating the existing system of public school financing should make clear that the existing system is to remain operable until an appropriate new system, which is not violative of equal protection of the laws, can be put into effect.

By our holding today we further the cherished idea of American education that in a democratic society free public schools shall make available to all children equally the abundant gifts of learning. This was the credo of Horace Mann, which has been the heritage and the inspiration of this country. “I believe,” he wrote, “in the existence of a great, immortal immutable principle of natural law, or natural ethics, — a principle antecedent to all human institutions, and incapable of being abrogated by any ordinance of man … which proves the absolute right to an education of every human being that comes into the world, and which, of course, proves the correlative duty of every government to see that the means of that education are provided for all….” (Original italics.) (Old South Leaflets V, No. 109 (1846) pp. 177-180 (Tenth Annual Report to Mass. State Bd. of Ed.), quoted in Readings in American Education (1963 Lucio ed.) p. 336.)

The judgment is reversed and the cause remanded to the trial court with directions to overrule the demurrers and to allow defendants a reasonable time within which to answer.

Last modified: 2022-12-27 12:57
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
Case internal status notes: Fixed