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Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as With $1 Billion Pledge, Calif. Settles Lawsuit

With $1 Billion Pledge, Calif. Settles Lawsuit

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California will spend as much as $1 billion for educational supplies and school facilities to settle a major class action lawsuit brought on behalf of needy students.

The settlement ends the 4-year-old Williams v. California case after nearly five months of negotiations. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who pledged to settle the suit rather than fight it, announced the final agreement Aug. 13 at a Los Angeles middle school that is among the schools targeted to benefit from the settlement.

The state’s fiscal 2005 budget includes $188 million as a first installment of the plan. Of that amount, $138 million will buy textbooks and other instructional materials aligned to the state’s standards, and $50 million will go toward repairs and deferred maintenance, beginning in the 2004-05 school year.

In coming years, another $800 billion will go to repairing facilities. About 2,300 schools that serve the students included in the lawsuit could receive a share of the aid.

Lawyers for the students applauded the final deal, saying that it would provide high-quality teachers, enough books, and decent facilities for students who had never had them.

"It’s a historic first step toward correcting many of major deficiencies," said Jenny Pearlman, a lawyer for Public Advocates Inc., a San Francisco-based group representing the students. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and a private law firm also served as legal counsel for the plaintiffs.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, speaking at Thomas A. Edison Middle School, called the settlement "a landmark day for California’s neglected students."

"They will be neglected no more," he said.

Approach Questioned

But state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell wasn’t as pleased. While saying he preferred the settlement to continued legal battles, he argued that a "more comprehensive" approach was needed.

"This settlement relies heavily on bureaucratic solutions and detailing the resources government should put into schools, rather than focusing on desired results—increased student achievement," he said in a statement. "What is really needed is a comprehensive evaluation of what it takes to achieve the desired ‘output’ of proficiency for all our students."

Other observers predicted the settlement could lead to cumbersome state oversight because the state will have more authority to inspect school sites, which up until now has been a district responsibility. Heavy-handed state regulations have been a perpetual complaint of most California school administrators.

Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University and a former president of the state board of education, said the Williams case addresses the minimum level of finance needed in the schools involved, but doesn’t address whether funding is adequate or equitable compared with the resources of other schools.

"It gets them from the basement to the first floor, but there are two more floors to go on this," he said.

The state had already spent about $18 million in legal fees under former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, to fight the lawsuit. Mr. Davis, who was removed from office in a recall election last fall, had in turn sued some of the districts to try to force them to pay for facility needs. That move not only failed, but turned into a public relations disaster and caused him to lose favor with many educators.

Details of Agreement

The settlement mainly addresses teacher quality, instructional materials, and facilities.

It assures needy students, particularly English-language learners, that they will have enough textbooks and other materials not only in their classrooms, but also available to take home as needed.

The state reiterated in the settlement its commitment to meeting the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s requirements for a "highly qualified" teacher in every core classroom by the end of the 2005-06 school year. The state also agreed to ease certification requirements for teachers who already hold teaching certificates from other states.

Moreover, the state will provide $800 million over the next four years to make emergency repairs to facilities through a new grant program, and by the end of this year will conduct a survey to assess the conditions of the lowest-performing schools’ facilities. It also will develop a facilities-inspection program for each district affected by the settlement.

The settlement also calls for phasing out the shortened academic years that some of the state’s most overcrowded, year-round schools now use. Districts must begin phasing out the so-called "Concept 6" plans this year, and must have all students on a 180-day schedule by 2012.

Finally, it seeks more academic and fiscal accountability by calling on the state to build new systems to collect data on instructional materials and the conditions of facilities in the affected districts, while giving county schools superintendents, parents, and others new avenues to file complaints if those conditions are not up to the standards.

Vol. 24, Issue 1, Pages 25,31

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