ACLU Sues California For 'Equal Learning Time'
The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that high poverty schools in California are denying students the learning time they need to succeed. The problem is so great and so pervasive, the lawsuit claims, that it violates the state constitution. "We just celebrated the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed, and some of these schools are in worse shape than those in Topeka," says ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum, referring to the district that gave the landmark case its name.
The lawsuit names students including Briana Lamb as members of the class. In the fall of 2012, when Lamb showed up for her junior year at Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles, she says her schedule was full of holes. "I had four 'home' periods, and one 'service,' " she said. A home period means just that: the student must go home. During a service period, sometimes you help teachers do photocopying or pass out papers. Lamb says that at other times it just means sitting around. That meant Lamb had actual classes for just a few hours a day--not enough to graduate on time. "It made me nervous," she said. "I knew exactly what classes I needed to be in to finish my 11th grade requirements." But it took weeks to sort them out.
The suit, Cruz et al. v. State of California, was filed in Alameda Superior Court with co-counsel Public Counsel. In a statement, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said, "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." The Local Control Funding Formula, enacted in last fall's budget, is intended to restore school budgets to pre-recession levels with an extra boost for funding for schools with high-needs students.
A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is not named in the suit, had no immediate comment.
The ACLU has spent years filing lawsuits challenging inequities in educational materials and facilities, but this is the first case to address the basic factor of time spent on learning. The class action suit names students at seven schools in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. The complaint cites several interrelated factors that, it claims, systematically cut into learning time:
High turnover among both administrative and teaching staff, plus a lack of counselors, leads to scheduling and staffing chaos, the ACLU says. At Fremont, that wasn't resolved for almost three months. In the meantime, many students had blank schedules and spent the day in the auditorium.
"I had a math class, I think it was Algebra I, where we had a sub for a month," says Lamb. "She said, 'I'm not a math teacher. I can't help you. I'm sorry. Maybe you can help each other.' "
"My sophomore year, my mom passed away and my dad got really sick," Lamb recalls. "But nobody took the time to see why I wasn't passing. Everybody just assumed I didn't care about school. They mentioned to me, 'You know, the GED is always an option', and I was only like a sophomore."
None of these complaints are exactly new in high-poverty schools, either in California or across the nation. But by shining a light on the severity of these issues, using the frame of equal learning time, and invoking the state constitution, Rosenbaum says the ACLU hopes to prod action. He noted that two previous equity cases settled fairly quickly after negotiations with state officials, and that potential solutions are "not tough stuff," like assigning more counselors to schools to work on schedules and mental health. "Our hope is that we don't have to spend years trudging through the courts."
This post was updated to reflect the State of California's response.
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