The long-troubled Compton, Calif., schools moved a step closer to independence from state management last week as civil rights advocates and state officials settled a lawsuit claiming the district’s 31,000 students had been denied the opportunity to receive an adequate education.
In dropping the 1997 suit, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Sherman Oaks, Calif. law firm of Newman, Aaronson, Vanaman acknowledged improvements in school facilities and the classroom environment in recent years.
“For the first time in decades, the Compton school system receives passing marks when it comes to affording equal educational opportunity to its students,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the legal director of the ACLU of Southern California.
Compton was on the verge of bankruptcy when it was taken over by the state in 1993. It was also one of the lowest-achieving districts in California at the time.
The takeover, however, has been a frequent source of controversy for local residents, who resent the outside intervention.
Last week’s settlement, or consent decree, was approved by the state court overseeing the lawsuit. It did not specify new expenditures for the district, but instead legally binds the district and the state to provide students with such basics as functioning toilets, enough textbooks in core classes, and windows that are not broken.
The agreement also holds the school system responsible for putting certified teachers in every classroom, giving homework to students, and soliciting regular feedback from the community on its schools.
“If employees said tomorrow that ‘we can’t repair windows because we have no money,’ we have a court order to enforce it, which means funds must be obtained,” Mr. Rosenbaum said.
The settlement represented a major victory for Randolph E. Ward, the state administrator who was assigned to oversee Compton in 1996. “For the first time in 30 years, I think we have Compton back on the right road,” he said last week.
Observers point to signs that the situation in Compton will continue to improve. Within a year after the lawsuit was filed, an interim agreement was reached that secured textbooks for every student, as well as major improvements in district health and safety conditions.
More recently, the state approved the spending of more than $100 million in the district for facility improvements, which are scheduled to begin later this year.
Plans are now in the works for two new elementary schools, 22 modernization projects, and 14 additions to existing schools. “Next year, the district will literally have a makeover,” Mr. Ward declared.
The district qualified for the state aid as a hardship case after local voters failed on three separate ballots in the last few years to pass a school construction bond.
While the funding was not a direct outcome of the legal challenge, it smoothed the way for an agreement. “Whatever financial hardships that existed were ameliorated,” Mr. Rosenbaum said.
But the “Compton comeback,” as Mr. Ward puts it, is far from complete.
To shed its current state oversight, the district must pass muster with an independent crisis-management team that is monitoring its finances and compliance with state regulations. A special monitor has been appointed to oversee the settlement.
Gains on Tests
And even if control of the Compton schools is turned over next year to the local school board, which remains in existence but in a substantially weakened role, as Mr. Ward predicts, a state trustee will continue to monitor the district.
Moreover, Compton’s students still lag behind their peers, both in the local area and statewide. The district’s scores were, on average, 10 points or more behind other Los Angeles County districts on most parts of last year’s Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition.
On the other hand, Mr. Ward is quick to point out that, in past years, Compton performed at the bottom of California districts on state exams.
That, he said, is no longer the case. For example, on last year’s Stanford-9, Compton’s students with limited proficiency in English scored close to county and state averages, even surpassing them in some areas, such as 2nd grade reading and math.
The teacher-attendance rate is also up, from around 80 percent to above 95 percent, Mr. Ward added.
A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as ACLU, Calif. Settle Lawsuit Over Compton