Student Achievement

To Settle a Lawsuit, California Will Shift $2 Billion to Students Hurt by Pandemic Shutdowns

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 01, 2024 7 min read
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California has agreed to direct $2 billion to evidence-based supports for children who were hurt most by learning disruptions during the pandemic, settling a long-running class-action lawsuit.

The lawsuit stems from months of pandemic school closures in 2020 and 2021. California, like many states, used remote instruction during those shutdowns.

Los Angeles and Oakland students in the education equity lawsuit Cayla J. v. California, filed in 2020, accused the state and its education officials of not providing guidance, support, and oversight during that time, allowing massive instructional and technology gaps to widen between low-income students and their wealthier peers, particularly for students in remote learning during school closures.

Cayla J. and Kai J., twins among the 15 low-income students of color in the lawsuit, were in 2nd grade on March 17, 2020 when their Oakland schools closed during the pandemic, and had only two classes for the rest of that school year. The twins’ mother, Angela J., said she “felt like her children had been written off.”

By fall 2020, the twins’ average class day included a 45-minute class session in the morning and a 30-minute group discussion in the afternoon, with a checklist of activities to complete. The students received no materials for the lessons, and their mother Angela only found out that Kai was having trouble in class from a conversation with a physical education teacher. They only started to receive instructional support from a virtual instruction hub set up by a local parent advocacy group, Oakland REACH. Though schools returned to in-person learning in 2021-22, the twins and their younger sister fell further behind when they missed two weeks of school due to a COVID-19 outbreak, in which they did not receive remote learning support.

Overall, high-poverty districts reopened on average 69 days later than low-poverty districts, and districts serving more students of color reopened on average 72 days later than those serving mostly white students.

By 2022, the Public Policy Institute of California found, in the first statewide testing after the pandemic began, only 21 percent of low-income students were proficient in math, versus 51 percent of their wealthier peers. Little more than a third of low-income students met state reading standards, versus 65 percent of higher-income students.

“The pandemic didn’t create the problems. The pandemic exacerbated pre-existing problems,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the director of the Public Council Opportunity Under Law project, who represented the Cayla plaintiffs alongside attorneys from the firm Morrison & Foerster LLP. “And so, our hope is that with this, we can not only address the learning losses that the pandemic exacerbated, but there’s no reason that there should be opportunity gaps for these kids at all. Period.”

The California education department did not respond to questions on the settlement by press time.

Cayla is the first statewide settlement of its kind on educational inequities during the pandemic and may prompt similar suits in other states. However, the settlement highlights both the deep investments needed to help students recover academically from pandemic disruptions, and also how challenging it will be to secure such money from states’ tightening budgets.

California’s students remain on average more than a full school year behind their pre-pandemic academic performance. Nearly 8 in 10 California public school students of color, and more than 6 in 10 who come from low-income families, are more than a full school year behind where they should be, showing how those groups have been disproportionately hard hit academically and developmentally by learning disruptions during the pandemic.

Lakisha Young, the founder and CEO of Oakland REACH said she hopes the settlement will enable evaluation and scaling up of evidence-based tutoring and other interventions. Oakland REACH created a citywide hub for virtual learning resources which served Cayla and Kai J. and other Oakland students during pandemic school closures and has since developed a parent-led tutoring program in schools.

“We love that it’s promising, but we have to make sure we’re putting the permanent conditions in place so that these things can sustain long term,” Young said. “Our parents are stepping up in a really powerful way when they join onto lawsuits, when they step up to be paras and educators in schools. So everybody else has got to show up, too.”

Financial capacity

The $2 billion of the Cayla settlement will come not from new money but from new prioritizations put on unspent money from the state’s $7.9 billion Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grants program, which was allocated to run through the 2027-28 school year.

Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed cutting $2.5 billion from the grants last summer, to help close a $30 billion state budget gap, but has since pledged not to cut K-12 funding. Cayla may safeguard the block grants from future budget cuts, because if districts report less than $2 billion in uncommitted money in the emergency grants as of July 1, the lawsuit can be reopened.

As its name suggests, the emergency block grants already are supposed to be dedicated to learning recovery, but what that means has changed over time. Early on, school districts dedicated most recovery aid to upgrading technology and health and safety systems needed to improve remote learning and return students to in-person instruction. In the last year, districts spent more on student mental health supports and academic interventions like tutoring and extended learning time. However, staff shortages and rising, chronic student absenteeism have stymied intervention efforts.

“If we step back and look at the California settlement, it’s basically piggybacking on, adapting, and trying to improve pre-existing state-led efforts to address academic recovery—and doing so without any additional new resources. And that appears to be driven in part by the broader fiscal constraints the state government is facing,” said Stanford University education professor Thomas Dee, who submitted research and testimony in the Cayla lawsuit. “California is not alone in facing those fiscal constraints, so that may be the lesson we see play out in other states that efforts to try to promote increased investment in academic recovery through litigation may bump up against a difficult fiscal reality.”

The settlement would accelerate that pivot in focus to academic interventions for the students who have fallen furthest behind. If California passes the legislation required under the settlement, districts would have to create needs assessments targeting their students performing below grade level in reading and math and those with the highest chronic absenteeism.

“It’s clear states and districts are still working to accelerate learning for students who fell behind during the pandemic as well as overcome stubborn gaps that have persisted over time,” said Nancy Waymack, the director of research partnerships and policy at Stanford’s National Student Support Accelerator, which studies ways to scale up effective learning recovery interventions.

“Given that federal pandemic relief funds are coming to a close, resources from this settlement arrive at a critical time for students,” Waymack said, referring to the $189.5 billion federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund, the last round of which must be committed by Sept. 30.

Oakland REACH’s Young said the settlement also has been a symbolic victory for parents who have been fighting to help their children recover lost academic ground.

“Three years ago, our parents would not have thought that their voices mattered ... and they still stepped into this and exhibited a lot of courage, because being plaintiffs in a lawsuit like this, it’s a huge, huge, leap of courage,” Young said.

The Cayla settlement may lead to more transparency in how schools choose interventions for academically at-risk students, Dee said.

“I hope the needs assessments and the reporting requirements articulated in the settlement agreement are really effective drivers of innovative programming,” he said, “but I wish the state hadn’t leaned so heavily on local control and instead, provided more direct support to districts to meet this challenge.”

Dee said he would have preferred the state follow the model it set in response to Ella T. v. California, a 2017 “right to read” lawsuit alleging inequitable reading education for Black and Latino students in the state. Under a 2020 settlement, California provided $50 million in new money and technical support and guidance to improve reading instruction at the 75 elementary schools with the lowest reading performance in the state. Dee and Stanford doctoral researcher Sarah Novicoff found the three-year settlement initiative boosted reading and even some math achievement in the schools.

Research partnerships may be chilled

While not related to the settlement, the lawsuit may also reduce trust between education researchers and states and districts around data use.

That’s because last summer, California threatened to sue Dee and other researchers and revoke their data access if the researchers testified against the state in the Cayla suit. While an Alameda County Superior Court judge ultimately ruled that the state could not punish Dee financially or professionally for his testimony, the American Educational Research Association and other research groups have warned the attempt could set a bad precedent for other state and district research partnerships.

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