Law & Courts

California Settlement Yielding School Improvements

By Linda Jacobson — August 14, 2007 4 min read
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The settlement of a lawsuit focused on basic learning conditions in California’s schools is resulting in significant improvements, according to a new report from two of the organizations that filed the lawsuit.

After two full years of implementation of what is known as the Williams settlement legislation, students have received more than 88,000 new textbooks and other teaching materials, and more than 3,400 emergency repairs have been paid for with state money. Such upgrades also are helping attract and retain qualified teachers, says the report, which was slated for release Aug. 12 by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and by Public Advocates, two of the three civil rights groups that filed the litigation in 2000.

According to the report, which reflects changes occurring during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years, “teaching and learning conditions in California’s public school classrooms have materially improved as a direct result of the Williams standards and accountability systems.”

The report calls for “continued diligence,” however, so that more gains can be made.

The 2004 settlement in the case of Williams v. California came four years after Sweetie Williams and his son Eliezer—named as the lead plaintiffs in the class action—charged that the conditions at the school the young man attended in San Francisco were “dismal and unacceptable.” Broken toilets, cracked windows, drips from the ceiling, and a lack of up-to-date textbooks were some of the complaints listed in court documents. (“Calif. Law Eases Way for Emergency Work At Low-Ranked Schools,” Jan. 10, 2007.)

Ongoing Inspections

State legislation based on the settlement set forth a complex monitoring system to be carried out by California’s 58 county offices of education. While the law applies to all schools, low-performing schools in each county—those in the bottom third of the state’s Academic Performance Index, or API—are inspected for facility needs, the adequacy of students’ books and other materials, and proper certification of teachers.

The report says that over the second full year of monitoring, inspectors from the county offices visited 2,085 campuses—99 percent of the schools in the bottom three deciles of the API.

In Los Angeles County, for example, the percentage of schools in those categories with insufficient textbooks or instructional materials dropped to 14 percent in the second year of implementation from 22 percent in the first year.

And in the greater San Francisco Bay Area—another one of the four regions highlighted in the report—the percentages of schools with facility deficiencies fell to 63 percent, from 75 percent.

Lupe Delgado, the director of the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Williams Implementation Project, said that prior to the settlement, schools used shifting enrollment numbers at the beginning of the school year as an excuse for not assigning textbooks to students in a timely way. Now, she said, schools make sure books are handed out within the first four weeks of the year, as the law requires.

“The districts are working toward improving in all of the areas,” Ms. Delgado said, but added that she agrees with the report that “we’re not at a hundred percent.”

An initial assessment from the ACLU, released in late 2005, concluded that the inspections already were making a difference. Schools no longer were putting off repairs, and vacant teaching positions were being filled.

Earlier this year, a new law went into effect that makes it easier for schools to pay for those repairs. The state’s Emergency Repair Program was converted from a reimbursement program into a grant program, which allows districts to receive the money upfront. More than $300 million is available in the fund, and $100 million is to be added each fiscal year until it reaches $800 million. (“Inspecting for Quality,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

Teachers Still Needed

The Williams settlement also has figured into other issues facing the state education system. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that sought to stop administration of the California High School Exit Exam, Valenzuela v. O’Connell, argued that because the improvements sparked by the settlement have occurred unevenly across the state, many students, particularly English-language learners, have not had enough opportunity to learn the material on the test.

State education officials prevailed in the Valenzuela case, and last month a tentative settlement was reached that would require the state to pay for an additional two years of instruction for students who fail to pass the mandatory test before the end of senior year. The settlement still requires approval by the Democratic-controlled state legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Authors of the new report say that while there is much to celebrate, many schools still lack qualified teachers. For example, in 2005-06, among low-performing schools, 13 percent of classes in which at least 20 percent or more of the students were English-language learners were taught by teachers without an English-learner credential.

“Continued vigilance by everyone involved in our public schools—the legislature, state agencies, county offices of education, school districts, administrators, teachers, community members, parents, and students—will be necessary,” the report says, “to ensure the gains in the first two years of the Williams legislation quickly lead to greater improvements and full compliance with the Williams standards.”

Ms. Delgado added that continued education is needed to make sure both school officials and parents understand how to use the complaint process, which allows parents, students, school employees, and members of the public to submit formal complaints on matters covered by the Williams settlement. Her office, she said, holds frequent meetings for PTA leaders.

“This is one of the areas where we get several questions,” Ms. Delgado said. “There will always be a Williams discussion.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 15, 2007 edition of Education Week as California Settlement Yielding School Improvements

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