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Lawsuit Accuses California of Allowing Students at Under-Resourced Schools to Lose Learning Time

June 11, 2014

Students attending seven of California’s most disadvantaged schools lose days, weeks and months of critical classroom instruction through the course of their academic careers, according to a lawsuit filed in Alameda Superior Court on May 29. Cruz et al. v. State of California accuses the state of California of failing to address the factors that reduce actual learning time and slowly rob students of an equal education, despite knowing of their existence and impact on students.

The ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal), Public Counsel and Gary Blasi, Professor Emeritus of the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, filed the lawsuit with the pro bono support of the law firms Carlton Fields Jorden Burt and Arnold & Porter LLP.

The plaintiffs are students at seven elementary, middle, and high schools in the Bay Area and Southern California. With no requirement or tracking of actual learning time, many students in underperforming schools receive less education than students in higher performing schools.

“My classmates and I lose significant amounts of instructional time throughout each year, and we are falling miles behind. We don’t have the chance to learn what we need to. The state should be more focused on the real education that’s happening in the classroom,” said Jessy Cruz, a senior at Fremont High School in Los Angeles and lead plaintiff in Cruz v. California. Cruz has experienced misassigned classes, multiple make-work service periods, high teacher turnover, violence and the lack of counseling support.

“Our children are not disposable. They still need their education. This is their future in a very real sense. To know that our students’ instructional time is wasted is a problem for me and should be a problem for everyone in our state,” said Danielle Dixon, a special education teacher at Castlemont High School in Oakland. “Castlemont and all schools can work. It’s about investing in the resources to make them work.”

“The state has literally not given the time of day to the children at the seven urban schools which comprise this lawsuit,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel at ACLU SoCal. “Students on these campuses are enrolled in faux courses that teach no subjects, are not scheduled into real classes for weeks into their semester while they sit in lunchrooms instead of classrooms and then are finally assigned to classrooms where they disproportionately see more substitutes than students enrolled in schools in more affluent neighborhoods. Robbed of meaningful learning time on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, these seven schools historically rank at the bottom of all California’s schools in basic literacy proficiency. This suit then is brought to enjoin the state from continuing to operate a dual school system of part-time and full-time schools.”

“Learning time is the fundamental building block of education,” said Kathryn Eidmann, staff attorney at Public Counsel. “Students at these schools have been losing hours, days and even months of their education since the day they started kindergarten. The state can’t turn back the clock for these students, but it can give students the educational opportunities they deserve starting now.”

“Mere time in a schoolhouse does not equate to education. The purpose of this lawsuit is to make sure the state – which is constitutionally obligated to provide that education – affords our children the learning they are entitled to,” said Mark Neubauer, shareholder in Carlton Fields Jorden Burt’s Los Angeles office.

“The solutions this action seeks are not simply spending more money but using current resources in a manner designed to provide meaningful classroom education instead of schools traumatized by violence and bereft of a stable teaching corps. It focuses on the fact the same hours spent in privileged and lower income schools are not equal and yet should be.”

The factors that conspire to rob time from students include classes euphemistically labeled service periods or inside work experience where students sacrifice classroom time to make copies, run errands, or socialize; the consequences of violence on campus that go untreated due to a lack of mental health services and trauma-sensitive strategies; delayed master course schedules that lead to a high level of transfers and improper class placement for weeks or months after the start of the school year; disproportionately high teacher turnover and rotating substitutes that create a cycle of lost learning time; and empty desks from student absences that are fueled by students’ feeling that the state has given up on them and their schools.

Continual reforms to California’s education system have not fixed an underlying cause of education inequity: equal time for learning. The state is aware of the issues regarding reduced learning time and hasn’t done anything to fix them. It needs to implement policies that ensure all students receive an equal opportunity to learn.

ACLU SoCal and Public Counsel were co-counsel in Reed v. State, a 2010 lawsuit that addressed teacher turnover at hard-to-staff Los Angeles Schools. Public Counsel is the nation’s largest pro bono law firm and a leader on education rights for California students. Since its founding in 1923, ACLU SoCal has been dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of civil liberties, civil rights, and economic justice. Since 2000, ACLU SoCal has been working to ensure equal rights and opportunities for all students in California.

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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst issued the following joint statement in connection with a class action lawsuit, Cruz et al. v. State of California, filed in Oakland.

"California's education system is in the midst of a historic effort to shift authority over decision making to local school districts, empowering them to determine how best to meet the needs of the students they serve.

"While neither the California Department of Education nor the State Board of Education has had an opportunity to review the specific claims made in today's suit, 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, and we will resist any effort to derail this important initiative through costly and unnecessary litigation.

"We encourage the ACLU to continue to communicate with us at the state and, more importantly, to work with local school districts about the best ways to support local students and improve educational outcomes."

Sources:  American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, California Department of Education.