The Commission on State Mandates could compel California officials to come up with the money, if the panel finds that the state failed to fully fund a program that it requires, said Heather Halsey, the commission's executive director. State officials also could opt to shut down or limit the testing system.
Last month, school districts submitted the claim as they prepare for the first time to give the new Smarter Balanced Assessments to students this spring. The tests are at the center of a new system based on the national Common Core standards, a list of items that students should know by certain grades.
Santa Ana Unified, Orange County's largest district with 57,000 students, is one of four districts that took the lead in the class-action complaint. Unlike the previous tests given with paper and pencil, the Smarter Balanced exams are all on computers for grades third through eighth and also 11th.
"This computer thing is a whole different deal than the No. 2 pencil," said Superintendent Rick Miller of Santa Ana Unified. "You have to reimburse the mandate based on that."
Through this school year, Santa Ana officials estimate that it will spend about $12 million on the tests. That includes $8.1 million for devices, $3.3 million for bandwidth and infrastructure, as well as costs including accessories and training.
Statewide, the estimated shortfall is $1 billion annually for districts, according to the districts' claim.
"The goal is really to ensure that the state fulfills its Constitutional mandate," said Josh Daniels, a staff attorney for the California School Boards Association. "It's going to be quite expensive. ... We foresee this as being a significant impact on districts going forward."
Daniels said district officials have no intention for testing to be canceled.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance, declined to comment because officials are reviewing the claim.
In 2013, the state Legislature gave $1.25 billion to districts in one-time funds to help pay for classroom changes because of the Common Core standards, including training, instructional materials and technology.
Another $26.7 million was added last year for high-speed internet access at schools with the highest needs. The governor's latest budget proposal for next year adds $100 million for internet needs.
But those plans failed to address the ongoing costs, Daniels said.
For example, even if districts have some technology, it might not be enough – such as they might have iPads but because of the testing the students now need keyboards as well, Miller said.
Formed in 1985, the commission is a quasi-judicial body responsible for hearing claims from local governments concerning state-mandated programs and funding. If the state is shorting local agencies, it must come up with the money, alter the mandate or cancel it, Halsey said.
The commission could consider the school districts' claim as early as May. The state could challenge any ruling in court.
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