Equity & Diversity

Calif. Schools Lack Basics, Suit Alleges

By Jessica L. Sandham — May 24, 2000 5 min read
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Citing vermin-infested school buildings, overflowing toilets, and depleted textbook supplies, several California civil rights organizations sued the state last week, charging that it has failed to provide some students with even the most basic of educational necessities.

More than 60 students at 18 schools were named as plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed on the 46th anniversary of the historic U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The class action alleges that such conditions exist mainly at schools populated overwhelmingly by poor and minority students. It also argues that by allowing the conditions to persist, the state is shirking its responsibility to provide a free and equal education for all students, as required by the state constitution.

“The promise of equality in this country is based on education,” said Hector O. Villagra, a staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups supporting the legal action against the state. “And for too many kids in this state, particularly Latino kids, that promise is a hollow one.”

School funding experts noted that unlike previous lawsuits in Wyoming, Ohio, New Hampshire, and other states, the California suit does not ask the state to define what an adequate education is and raise its spending accordingly. And unlike Serrano v. Priest, the case decided by the California Supreme Court in 1971 that triggered a wave of lawsuits around the country alleging inequities in states’ school funding systems, the recent suit does not explicitly seek to eliminate spending disparities between districts statewide.

Instead, by asking the state to guarantee that all students have access to trained teachers, acceptable classrooms, and safe facilities, the suit harks back to a concept that long predates debates over equity and adequacy, said Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University who specializes in public policy.

“This suit returns to the oldest state function, which is to provide a minimal floor of educational provisions below which no school should drop,” Mr. Kirst said. “In the early 1900s, the state’s major role was to ensure that all schools met a minimum floor. They inspected facilities, looked at toilets, and worried about teacher credentials.”

The lawsuit contends that the state has delegated much of its constitutional responsibilities for education to a system of local school districts, and thus has “abdicated its responsibility to oversee and superintend that system to ensure its functions.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said last week that she had not yet thoroughly examined the lawsuit, but that lawyers for her and the other state officials would work to “develop an appropriate response.” Ms. Eastin is named as a defendant along with the state education department, the board of education, and the state itself.

Scenes of Squalor

The lawsuit cites vivid examples of substandard school conditions.

In one San Francisco school, it asserts, a rodent has been left to decompose in the corner of the gymnasium since the start of the school year. In another school in Fresno, the suit alleges, students have been known to urinate or defecate on themselves because they could not find unlocked bathrooms in time. And in one Los Angeles elementary school cafeteria, it says, “parents have seen custodial staff wipe the tables with mops the custodians have used to clean the floors.”

The suit also lists numerous examples of classes in schools around the state in which several sets of students have to share one set of textbooks, giving them no reference materials from which to do homework, or where students have no access to textbooks at all.

Without adequate air conditioning, the computer lab at Bryant Elementary School in San Francisco has been as hot as 92 degrees this school year, the plaintiffs report. “Teachers have to spray students with water to keep them cool during the spring, summer, and fall,” the suit says.

Sandina Robbins, the spokeswoman for the 64,000-student San Francisco school district, said last week that she couldn’t comment on the specific conditions cited in the complaint about two of the district’s schools because she had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit. She said that district officials have long lobbied the state to raise per-pupil spending to the national average.

“We do have problems in terms of having outdated textbooks, and not enough textbooks,” Ms. Robbins added.

The suit also says that because of a state policy that allows for emergency teaching permits, too many of California’s teachers have never received training in how to teach. In at least 100 schools in the state, it says, more than half the teachers lack full teaching credentials.

Much of California’s problem with uncertified teachers can be traced to former Gov. Pete Wilson’s push to lower class sizes in the early grades, said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that promotes educational quality for poor and minority students. “It was inevitable,” Ms. Haycock said. “Anybody could have predicted the consequences. You’re not going to fix the problem the lawsuit talks about unless you offer teachers an incentive to teach in high-poverty schools.”

In addition to calling on the state to ensure that no schools have to do without the minimum educational tools it outlines, the plaintiffs say they want the state to put in place a system of oversight to ensure that schools never again do without the basics.

“We do not want money that is not earmarked thrown at the problem,” said Catherine E. Llamon, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Southern California, one of the main groups backing the suit. “We want to have specific conditions fixed, and a system in which they will stay fixed.”

But some observers said the problems cited in the lawsuit would not likely be resolved through a court case. The solution lies in giving schools more management autonomy, said Pamela Riley, the co-director of the center for school reform at the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank. “The question is ‘Where are the districts spending the money?’” Ms. Riley said. “I don’t know if a judge can solve that problem. I think the ACLU is looking in the wrong place.”

Even so, Mr. Kirst said, by focusing on such appalling conditions, the plaintiffs may very well receive a favorable judgment in the court of public opinion.

“The examples are so graphic and so shocking that a lot of people will have an emotional reaction to this,” he said. “It’s a very easy case for the public to get.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2000 edition of Education Week as Calif. Schools Lack Basics, Suit Alleges

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