California Agrees to $53 Million to Settle Lawsuit Over Low Literacy Achievement

By Catherine Gewertz — February 20, 2020 3 min read
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Targeted in a lawsuit that claimed it had violated children’s constitutional rights by failing to teach them to read, California has agreed to provide $53 million for early literacy instruction and a range of services to support it.

The settlement in the 2017 lawsuit, approved Thursday by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rupert A. Byrdsong, sets up a block grant program for the 75 schools with the highest concentrations of 3rd grade students scoring at the lowest level on state reading tests

The program, which is part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget, would include $3 million to create a “literacy lead” position in the state department of education, and $50 million over three years for a range of programs and services in grades K-3 to support literacy instruction.

Schools could use the money to hire literacy coaches, aides or reading specialists; provide “evidence-based” professional development for teachers, or buy or develop new curricula or diagnostic tests. To better support low-income children as they learn to read, schools could use the money to bring research-based social-emotional learning programs, or train their teachers in trauma-informed strategies. They could also provide literacy training for their students’ parents or caregivers.

To win grants under the program, schools would be required to perform an analysis of the reasons for the their low literacy achievement, and develop a three-year improvement plan that draws on high-quality literacy training and expertise, attorneys in the case said in a call with reporters on Thursday.

The case began in 2017, and drew wide notice because of the groundbreaking nature of its argument: that literacy is right guaranteed to children under the California constitution. In a key 2018 ruling, another superior court judge allowed the case, Ella T. vs. State of California, to move forward based on that argument. But the settlement doesn’t constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the state.

The plaintiffs were children who attended two schools in the Los Angeles area, and one in the central California community of Stockton. Their parents and several community-advocacy groups were plaintiffs as well. They sued the California board of education, the education department and the state superintendent, then Tom Torlakson.

A Settlement, Not an ‘End Point’

Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney at Public Counsel, which filed the lawsuit along with attorneys from Morrison & Foerster, said the settlement represented just the beginning of the crucial work to improve the literacy of California’s children so they can be full participants in civic life. “It’s not the end point, nor was it intended to be,” he said.

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner called the settlement “a step in the right direction, but only a small step.” David Holmquist, the district’s general counsel, said he was “anxious to get started” on the root-cause analysis needed to apply for the grant money. And Gov. Gavin Newsom’s press secretary, Vicky Waters, said in a statement that the state is “committed to closing opportunity gaps by directing extra support and resources to school districts and schools that serve students who need extra help.”

The mother of Bernie M., one of the student plaintiffs, told reporters that she hopes schools will use some of the grant funding for improved approaches to discipline. Identified only as Wanda M., she said that her sons, who attended a struggling Los Angeles school, “missed out on a lot of learning time” because poor discipline tactics failed to manage classroom disruptions. Too often, when children misbehaved, she said, teachers sent them to unsupervised detention areas without no books or assignments.

“When a school’s only response is to remove students from the classroom, and that happens multiple times per week, how can we expect students to keep up with the curriculum or catch up when they start to fall behind?” she said.

A professor who studied the plaintiff children’s schools for the lawsuit said he saw clear patterns that contributed to their low literacy achievement, patterns that are echoed in many other low-income schools around the state.

Joseph Bishop, who directs the Center for the Transformation of Schools at the University of California-Los Angeles, said the schools had class sizes so large that instructional differentiation was impossible, and few or no instructional coaches or literacy experts. Mentoring and professional development for teachers and principals in those schools were rare, their libraries were often closed, and they had little access to culturally relevant instructional materials.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.