Eighteen students from seven low-performing schools in California filed a class-action lawsuit against the state and its top education officials last week, claiming that they have not been given the same amount of time to learn as students in wealthier areas.
Pro-bono law firm Public Counsel and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California filed the case, Cruz v. State of California, in Alameda Superior Court. The plaintiffs' schools, all located in low-income, urban communities, are Fremont and Castlemont high schools in Oakland; Nystrom Elementary in west Contra Costa County; Compton High School and Whaley Middle School in Compton; and John C. Fremont High and Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary in Los Angeles.
"Students at these schools have been losing hours, days and even months of their education since the day they started kindergarten," Kathryn Eidmann, staff attorney at Public Counsel, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
While the schools' schedules look fine on paper, the suit alleges that, in practice, a slew of factors decrease learning time. These include teacher absences and long-term vacancies, scheduling mix-ups due to overburdened counselors, frequent lockdowns, and fake "service" courses in which students do office work and run errands.
All the distractions take "minutes away from teaching the P.E. drills you're supposed to be doing, from teaching Algebra 1," Danielle Dixon, a special education teacher at Castlemont High, said in a video about the issue produced by the ACLU. "This is learning time. And every minute counts."
"The California Constitution places an affirmative obligation on the state to safeguard the indispensable right to an equal education, no matter the circumstances," the complaint argues. "Basic equality in education then must begin with the guarantee that no child be denied the time required to learn what the state itself mandates be taught. As an elemental matter of equity and fairness, all public school children, at a minimum, are entitled to meaningful learning time sufficient for teachers to deliver the content necessary to meet the State's academic standards."
The lawsuit asks the state to establish a system to identify "grossly disparate meaningful learning time" and ensure that schools don't fall below the norm. It also requests that time be recovered at the plaintiffs' schools by providing them with more counselors, resources for class scheduling, and teacher training.
California's poorer schools have gained from suing the state before. A decade ago, the ACLU and other civil rights groups sued California on behalf of students whose schools lacked safe buildings, qualified teachers, or basic learning resources. Since the case, Williams v. California, was settled, the ACLU has reported that those schools have fewer unsafe buildings, more qualified teachers, and more textbooks.
In a statement, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and state Board of Education President Mike Kirst dismissed the litigation as "costly and unnecessary." They said state officials are working on giving school districts more control over how they spend state money and that local control is "the best way to improve student achievement and meet the needs of our schools."
Here's a video the ACLU of Southern California has produced about the learning loss problems students at the schools in the lawsuit are facing: