A state judge Wednesday ordered the California Department of Education to intervene at a South Los Angeles high school where some students have spent eight weeks in classes during which they received no instruction.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge George Hernandez Jr. chastised the Los Angeles Unified School District for being unable or unwilling to solve a chaotic scheduling situation at Thomas Jefferson High School. He criticized the state for disclaiming its constitutional responsibility to ensure that students in California receive an education.
“Put bluntly,” Hernandez wrote, “the harms already suffered are severe and pervasive; there is no evidence of an imminent solution; Defendants disclaim their constitutional responsibilities; and the harm to students (who are among the State’s most challenged) is compounding daily.”
Some students at Jefferson High School were assigned to “home,” “service” or “library” classes that amounted to going home, sitting in the auditorium, roaming around campus or occasionally being given menial administrative tasks. Some students had as many as four non-classes a day. Students were also put in classes they had taken before.
Hernandez gave the state until Nov. 3 to ensure there are adequate teachers, desks, classrooms and books to provide substantive courses that students need to fulfill graduation and college entrance requirements. Hernandez acknowledged that problems with the district’s new scheduling software contributed to widespread scheduling failures.
The state argued that it is the responsibility of Los Angeles Unified to remedy the scheduling problems at Jefferson and framed the issue as one of local control.
“Scheduling of classes is a local matter that belongs with local school officials,” said Richard Zeiger, chief deputy superintendent of the state Department of Education, in a statement Wednesday. “In this particular case, the judge has ruled that LAUSD did not meet that responsibility.” He added that the state will immediately begin to work with Los Angeles Unified officials to figure out how to solve the problem.
“Put bluntly, the harms already suffered are severe and pervasive; there is no evidence of an imminent solution; Defendants disclaim their constitutional responsibilities; and the harm to students (who are among the State’s most challenged) is compounding daily,” said Judge George Hernandez Jr.
It took two months for Ludin Lopez, 17, a senior at Jefferson, to get a class schedule, he said in an interview. Against his wishes, he continues to be enrolled in a “home” class, which means he is sent home at 1 p.m. daily. He was admitted two weeks late to an Advanced Placement literature class that has 50 students and not enough chairs, he said. He was admitted eight weeks late to a graphic arts class he needs to graduate. Also, after eight weeks he was assigned to a new trigonometry teacher when the class was split. The school offers no tutoring help, he said.
“It feels scary because I’m applying for college and don’t know if I’m going to stand out,” he said.
Hernandez issued his ruling as part of Cruz v. California, a class-action lawsuit challenging California’s failure to provide meaningful learning time to students. Public Counsel and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California filed the lawsuit in May with pro bono support from the law firms Carlton Fields Jorden Burt and Arnold & Porter LLP.
The lawsuit pits the state’s obligation to see that every child gets an equal opportunity for an education against the Legislature’s power to shift authority over education from the state to local districts through the new funding and accountability system, the Local Control Funding Formula. The lawyers for the students argued – and the judge agreed – that children would suffer “serious and irreparable harm” if the state doesn’t act immediately, and that children’s constitutional rights take precedence and “can trump” the Legislature’s ability to delegate responsibilities to local districts.
Lawyers for the state argued that the new funding system, in which districts write Local Control and Accountability Plans that set academic priorities and address student needs, is only in its first year and should be given time to work. But the judge said that ordering the state to intervene doesn’t violate the separation of powers and wouldn’t affect the new funding system.
Lawyers also warned that any intrusion by the judge in the district’s running of the school would be unprecedented and exceed any authority granted under the previous court decisions on education. But Hernandez indicated his ruling was consistent with a 1992 state Supreme Court decision that established students’ right to an adequate amount of learning time. In Butt v. State of California, the court declared that the Richmond Unified School District had violated students’ constitutional rights by closing six weeks early because of budget shortfalls.
Hernandez ordered the state to ensure that each Jefferson student currently assigned to two or more periods per day of Home, Service, College, Library or Adult, or one or more courses that the student has already passed, has the option to enroll in a substantive course.
Jefferson High, which has an enrollment of about 1,600 students, held its first day of classes on Aug. 12. Hernandez said the scheduling issues at Jefferson had been widely publicized and communicated to the Los Angeles School Board and to Superintendent John Deasy by early September, but Deasy failed to act. He noted, “While Dr. Deasy expresses appropriate outrage regarding the assignment of empty, contentless ‘courses’ to students, particularly those who are not on track to graduate or meet college eligibility requirements, he does not admit to knowing about Jefferson’s scheduling problems approximately one month ago or describe any actual or anticipated efforts by LAUSD to remedy them.”
The judge ordered representatives of the California Department of Education and the State Board of Education to meet with Deasy
no later than Oct. 13 to create a plan to enroll students in the classes they need and provide academic support to help students catch up.
In his ruling, the judge quoted Jeannie Oakes, an educational expert cited by plaintiffs, who said, “In more than 30 years of work in this field, I have encountered nothing that compares with the deprivations of educational opportunity being visited upon these students.”
“The situation at Jefferson is extreme, but it’s also typical of students at schools that have been ignored by the state for too long,” said David Sapp, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “Students in meaningless make-work service periods and home periods lose days and weeks of their education.”
Staff writer Susan Frey contributed to this report.