California: Reforming Education, One Lawsuit at a Time

Three lawsuits affecting California public schools reached significant milestones yesterday. Here’s a roundup:

Williams v. California: The settlement of this 2004 lawsuit forced California to inject $100 million per year into low-scoring schools for eight consecutive years. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of students who argued that the state’s lowest-scoring schools were being under-funded and had deprived students of an equitable education. On Monday, the ACLU released a report detailing the progress on facility repairs, textbook replacement, and teacher quality, all of which have been generally improving throughout the state. The news was mostly good for the Bay Area: the proportion of low-scoring schools with insufficient textbooks or instructional materials dropped from 43 percent to 29 percent between 2005 and 2006. However, the percentage of low-scoring schools with unsafe facilities increased slightly. Link to the Chronicle‘s coverage of the lawsuit and report, here.

Valenzuela v. O’Connell, et al.: On Monday, the Alameda County Superior Court approved a settlement (PDF) in this case, which challenged the state’s high school exit exams. The settlement — pending the passage of state Assembly Bill 347, which is now on the Senate floor – would require the state to provide two additional years of test-prep for students who have not passed the California State High School Exit Exam by the twelfth grade. The public high school class of 2006 had been slated to be the first in which a student would be required to pass the exit exam to graduate from high school. The plaintiffs argued that the state was not providing all students with an “equal and reasonable opportunity to pass the [exam],” and so denying diplomas to exam-failing students breached their constitutional right to due process and equal opportunity. Currently, students are allowed an extra year to pass the exam if they fail it in twelfth grade, during which time they may enroll in adult school, community college, or an extra year of high school to prepare for the test.

Quezada, et al. v. Kimberly Statham, et al.: Monday also marked the beginning of this lawsuit against Oakland Unified School District (Statham is state administrator for Oakland Unified while the district is under state control). According to yesterday’s press release (PDF), the lawsuit was filed by Public Advocates Inc. “on behalf of district parents and the public,” and claims that the district failed to publicly disclose certain vital data, most notably per-pupil spending. All California school districts are legally required publish this data annually in their School Accountability Report Card. Public Advocates, a San Francisco- and Sacramento-based nonprofit law firm, also provided co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the aforementioned Williams case. According to the press release, the firm will file similar lawsuits against eight other school districts – including local districts Alameda City and Hayward – if they do not comply with their School Accountability Report Cards by the beginning of this school year.

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