State finance officials last week granted the California Department of Education $3.4 million to fight a lawsuit that demands the state fix disruptive conditions in some high-poverty schools where students allegedly are being denied the fundamental right to an education.
The lawsuit claims that some students are enrolled in multiple classes during which they receive no instruction, that some spend hours in security lockdowns, and that teachers and students are reeling from the trauma of violent shootings around campuses.
The Department of Education will hire outside lawyers at $450 an hour to defend itself against the class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Jessy Cruz, a student at Fremont High School in Los Angeles, and more than a dozen other students at eight schools in four unified school districts: Los Angeles, Compton, Oakland and West Contra Costa.
The suit, Cruz v. California, pits the state constitutional guarantee of equal educational opportunity against local school district control over how to spend state funds, which is the foundation of the new school finance reforms known as the Local Control Funding Formula.
The case is at least the third lawsuit in which the state has argued it is not required to intervene in districts to ensure equal educational opportunity. In two previous major cases, the state lost, either in court or in a settlement agreement.
“As a legal matter, my view is the state is on pretty thin ice by saying it isn’t their responsibility,” said William Koski, a Stanford Law School professor.
“As a legal matter, my view is the state is on pretty thin ice by saying it isn’t their responsibility,” said William Koski, a professor of law and education at Stanford Law School.
Margaret Russell, a law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said, “It’s a weak argument for them to say it is only the district’s responsibility and not the role of the state.”
In Butt v. California, brought by parent Thomas Butt in the Richmond Unified School District, the California Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that “the State itself is responsible for the ‘fundamental’ educational rights of California students and must remedy a local district’s inability to provide its students an education ‘basically equivalent’ to that provided elsewhere in the State.”
In a landmark 2004 settlement agreement in Williams v. California, brought on behalf of San Francisco student Eliezer Williams, the state was held responsible for ensuring, through a monitoring system, that all students have textbooks, qualified teachers and safe facilities – buildings without leaks or rodents.
“It’s the Williams case all over again,” Bernard James, a law professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, said of Cruz v. California. “The broad outlines of both cases are on the topic of an equal opportunity to learn.”
The California Department of Education said this week it could not comment on the litigation, but in statements and legal briefs, the department has expressed its belief that local solutions, not state interventions, are required.
“We believe continuing to implement California’s Local Control Funding Formula – rather than shifting authority to Sacramento – is the best way to improve student achievement and meet the needs of our schools,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst in a statement when Cruz v. California was filed in May. “We will resist any effort to derail this important initiative through costly and unnecessary litigation.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, pro bono law firm Public Counsel and the law firms Carlton Fields Jorden Burt and Arnold & Porter filed the suit on behalf of the students.
In a Dec. 9 letter to legislative leaders, the California Department of Finance stated that it had approved a request from the Department of Education for $3,375,000 to be paid in this current fiscal year to hire outside lawyers for the Cruz case. The California attorney general, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education agreed the expense was necessary, according to the Department of Finance letter.
“I didn’t think you’d have to go to court in 2014 to argue that students need to go to schools where they have courses that have content,” said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney at Public Counsel. “The state’s position, and I’m not exaggerating, is ‘We have no duty.'”
Cruz v. California alleges that the students named in the complaint have been denied significant amounts of state-mandated instructional time at eight schools: Thomas Jefferson High School, John C. Fremont High School and Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School in Los Angeles; Castlemont High School and Fremont High School in Oakland; Franklin S. Whaley Middle School and Compton High School in Compton; and Nystrom Elementary School in West Contra Costa.
The lawsuit states that at the high schools named, instead of attending classes to meet graduation and college entrance requirements, the students are assigned to many periods of “home,” “service” or “library” classes that have no academic instruction. During those periods, students are going home, walking around campus or photocopying papers for teachers, according to the complaint. The suit claims a lack of available, qualified teachers and a shortage of course offerings at the schools are to blame.
Other causes of lost instructional time, the suit alleges, include violent incidents. In one case in April 2013, bullets were shot through the front door of Oakland’s Castlemont High School and into the main hallway, where students were walking.
Teachers quitting their jobs mid-year also interferes with instruction. The lawsuit cites the example of a teacher at Nystrom Elementary School in Richmond who was so overwhelmed by the lack of resources and support that she called 911 from her classroom during the school day “to report she was a danger to herself.” Police escorted her from the classroom. A teacher with no prior teaching experience was hired to replace her, the suit said.
The situations causing students to miss out on curriculum and academic engagement are known to the California Department of Education but “hidden from view for the majority of the public, who would be aghast were even some of these conditions to take place in their children’s schools,” the lawsuit alleges.
As part of the case, Alameda County Superior Court Judge George Hernandez Jr. issued a temporary restraining order in October instructing the California Department of Education to intervene at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, where some students had spent eight weeks in classes without instruction. Hernandez said the situation was causing “severe and pervasive educational deprivations.”
In a legal brief filed in opposition to the request for the temporary restraining order, Robin Johansen, an attorney with Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, which is representing the Department of Education, acknowledged that the alleged problems at Jefferson High warranted a response but “that response and appropriate remedies, however, should come at the school site and school-district level.”
David Sapp, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, noted that the state, under Gov. Gray Davis, spent four years fighting the Williams case at a cost of $22 million in outside attorney fees. Additionally, the state had to pay $20 million in fees for the opposition attorneys as part of the settlement.
Now in the Cruz case, Sapp said, “They are choosing to spend discretionary money to fight this lawsuit instead of doing what’s right.”