In 1849, a former school principal, Serranus Clinton Hastings, became California's first Chief Justice. Ever since that time, education and the law have been intertwined. This impact of law on educational decision making has never been more pronounced than in the Riles' years, 1971 through 1983.
The impact of court decisions on education can be measured in terms of quantity or in terms of impact on education policy. In terms of volume, court involvement in schools increased dramatically between 1960 and 1980. There were 811 appellate court decisions in California between 1958 and 1980. Of these, 106 or 13% were decided between 1960 through 1969, and another 177 or 22% were issued in the 10 year period from 1970 through 1979. Thus, the decade of the 70s reflected 8% of the time that the courts have been in operation but 22% of the decisions related to education.
However, the increased involvement of courts as reflected in the number of appellate court decisions while consistent with an increasingly litigious society is only a small part of the story. The decisions affected the operation of schools for the future.
The most revolutionary change in education in the history of California came in 1971 with the Supreme Court decision in Serrano v. Priest. That decision held that the State system of financing public schools was unconstitutional because it made the resources available for education, and therefore the quality of education, a function of the wealth of the school district.
Even before the case was tried, a conflict arose between the various defendants, Wilson Riles was alone in taking a position in favor of the plaintiffs. In doing so, Dr. Riles was proceeding on a risky course. He realized that the notion of equality at issue in Serrano did not necessarily mandate quality. In other words, the State could satisfy the Serrano mandate for equality by reducing all school districts in the State to the $400 to $600 range of the lowest spending districts. However, Dr. Riles was willing to take a political gamble. He believed, and later dynamics proved him correct, that the wealthy school districts, and the wealthy parents and citizens in those districts would not tolerate their programs being cut by as much as 80%. He foresaw that the political dynamics would require the achievement of equality through the leveling up of lower spending districts rather than a leveling down of the higher spending districts. As a result, when the case finally went to trial, Wilson Riles, as the Chief State School Officer, appeared as a witness for the plaintiffs.
The drive for equality of educational opportunity that culminated in the 70s became manifest in other areas as well. In the Crawford (1976), San Bernardino (1976) and Tinsley (1979) decisions relating to school desegregation, the courts articulated a duty that went far beyond the requirements already imposed by Federal courts. The State courts held that school districts had a duty to take reasonable and feasible steps to alleviate the racial isolation of minority pupils, regardless of how that isolation was caused. Moreover, they had a duty to help alleviate racial isolation in adjoining districts as well as their own. In addition, cases such as Lau v. Nichols (1974), mandating bilingual education programs, and Wood v. Strickland (1974), mandating due process hearings on pupil suspension or expulsion not only had the effect of broadening the base of educational participation, but resulted in increased judicial scrutiny over decisions which theretofore had been the province of school district governing boards and district administrators.
In 1975, the U. S. Department of Education published their regulations under Title IX which prohibited sex discrimination. Educators across the country expressed concern about the effect of the regulations on existing programs, particularly athletics. Wilson Riles' comments in support of the commitment to equal educational opportunities for women and in support of giving the regulations a chance to work were instrumental in neutralizing any opposition to the regulations in California.
Of course, changes in education law during the Riles decade were not limited to changes mandated by the judiciary. Statutory changes such as early childhood education (later expanded to school improvement), educationally disadvantaged youth, the Master Plan for Special Education, the consolidated application for State funds and other State categorical aid programs, were virtually unheard of in 1969. It would have seemed incredible in 1969 to suggest the broad array of State categorical aid programs with the authority vested in the State to evaluate school site plans, and for State evaluation teams to visit schools to determine the extent to which objectives were being met, with consequences from that evaluation affecting the subsequent years' funding. The landmark Master Plan for Special Education was drafted in California in 1973 long before the passage of federal legislation that mandated services for handicapped pupils nationwide.
All of these changes and the smooth implementation of the changes in a time of very tumultuous social change can be attributed largely to the leadership style of Wilson Riles who invariably focused on the needs of individual children and who was willing to articulate those needs to the courts, to the Legislature, to educators, and to the public.