March-April 2018 Advocate: District must stop violating “50% Law”


District must stop violating “50% Law”

State law requires at least half of budget be spent on classroom instruction

By Robert J. Bezemek, AFT 1493 Attorney

Since the 1970s, it has been rare for community college districts not to fulfill the requirements of the “50% Law”.  I am aware of just three lawsuits that were needed to enforce the law, two of which I filed. When any district has failed to meet its requirements in a given year, they have almost always made up their deficiency as the statute requires. San Mateo is on the cusp of deliberately disregarding its legal obligations.

San Mateo only district in state that did not meet 50% requirement in 2015-16 

Perhaps the limited number of legal actions is because most districts are able to comply with the law. In 2015-2016, when the San Mateo District was “significantly deficient” in complying with the law, every other California community college district fulfilled its legal obligation to expend at least 50% of the “current expense of education” for “salaries of classroom teachers” according to State figures.

I thus read with interest Chancellor Galatolo’s comment in the February Advocate, claiming the law is “antiquated”, “disadvantages students,” is “arbitrary,” was “developed in 1958.” Um. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

History of the 50% law

Let’s begin with the development of the 50% law. The Chancellor was only off by 107 years. California was admitted to the Union on September 9, 1850. The California public school “system” really wasn’t much in 1851 – it wasn’t yet a system and had no community colleges – but by spring 1851 the California legislature was already concerned enough with school administrators short changing teachers and students, and spending excessively on administration, that they adopted “An Act concerning Common Schools and Public Instruction.” As it read on May 1, 1851,

“Not less than sixty percent of the amount paid each District shall be expended in Teachers’ wages, the balance may, at the discretion of the District, be expended in building or repairing School-houses, purchasing a library or apparatus, or for the support of a High School.”

From 1851 until now it has been amended, revised and refined more than 50 times. In 1929, for instance, the law was added to the “School Code,” the forerunner of the modern Education Code, which was enacted in 1943. In 1949 the State first recognized grounds for legitimate “exceptions” to the Law’s requirements. In the 1950s and 1960s, after extensive study, the Legislature reaffirmed the necessity of the law. In the 1970s, numerous changes were made to better define the law’s terminology. In 1976 the Education Code was revised to create a separate “community college” section, and since then the requirements have included this:

“There shall be expended during each fiscal year for payment of salaries of classroom instructors, 50 percent of the district’s current expense of education.” (Education Code §84362 (d))

Public schools, such as those in the familiar K-12 configuration, still must meet a 60% requirement. Is that figure, or 50%, arbitrary? The extensive Legislative study and analysis, occurring for nearly 160 years, and the legitimate purposes behind the law, belies that claim.

Does labeling the 50% Law as “antiquated,” excuse its violation? Just because a law is “old” doesn’t make it obsolete, nor does it permit its violation. Indeed, the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution though older than the 50% Law, having been adopted in 1791, remains vital to this day, especially given its position at the core of academic freedom.

Purposes of 50% law: increase teachers’ salaries, reduce class size & control non-instructional costs

The primary purposes of the 50% law, and its ancestors, as officially recognized by the State, is to increase teachers’ salaries (as a group), reduce class size, and control non-instructional costs. Claiming that a law which includes those beneficent purposes “disadvantages” students seems a stretch. The 71 community college districts which satisfied the 50% law in 2015-2016 were still able to deliver a myriad of services to their students. When a law is being implemented statewide, and has been continuously updated, it is awfully hard to argue it’s obsolete, even if it could still be improved.

The 50% law operates on a three-year cycle. In year 1 a district must expend sufficient resources to meet the 50% requirement. In year two its success in the prior year is measured, and reported. Some failures are excusable, others not, under statutory guidelines. And if it has inexcusably failed to fulfill at least the 50% requirement, then in year 3 it must expend 50% of the “current expense of education” for “salaries of classroom teachers,” plus any amount by which it failed to meet the standard in year 1. San Mateo failed in year one and reported its failure in year 2. Now its day of reckoning is coming for by June 30, 2018 it must satisfy the remedial requirements for year 3, or else be in violation of the law, with the consequences which flow from that. What will San Mateo choose to do?