School daze: California lawsuit alleges students robbed of learning time

FROM CLASSROOM TO COURT: Eric Flood, a student at Fremont High School in Oakland, Calif., is a plaintiff in Cruz v. California.

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

While the Golden State awaits a court decision in Vergara v. California, a lawsuit aimed to overturn three state education statues, another education suit has been filed against the state.

Cruz v. California alleges students in seven schools are robbed of learning time, spending sizable portions of their school day in meaningless activity. The state ought to address the situation and hasn’t, plaintiffs allege.

“When you lose time, you fall miles behind. We don’t have the chance to learn what we need to. The state should be more focused on the real education that’s happening in the classroom,” said Jessy Cruz, lead plaintiff in the case and a senior at a Los Angeles high school, in a press release.

Attorneys from the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, Public Counsel, and others will represent students in the case.

“Students on these campuses are enrolled in faux courses that teach no subjects, are not scheduled into real classes for weeks into their semester while they sit in lunchrooms instead of classrooms and then are finally assigned to classrooms where they disproportionately see more substitutes than students enrolled in schools in more affluent neighborhoods,” said Kathryn Eidmann, staff attorney at Public Counsel, in the release.

Some legal analysts question whether litigation is right approach.

“I don’t doubt for a minute in the schools where these students are enrolled there are significant problems with lost time each day, but then the question is, what’s the solution and where are they going to come from?” said Joshua Dunn, columnist on law and education for Education Next and associate director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

“Then you have to ask, ‘What can the courts actually do?’” Dunn said. “Is the judge really going to intervene and try to manage the organization? Would they appoint a special manager to try to supervise the schools? We’ve had experience with courts doing that and it hasn’t worked out well, so I think that’s a problem.”

Michael Soller, spokesman for Public Counsel, outlined what a win in court would look like.

“We are asking for the state to track meaningful learning time and give direction to school districts where students are losing time to learn,” he said in an email. “There are common-sense solutions that school districts could take with clear direction and support from the state.”

School officials ought to place students in academic classes to ready them for graduation and college, and make sure schools have sufficient mental health, attendance and academic counselors, according to the complaint.

Earlier this year, Soller said, the nonprofit law firm told the state it ought to take action to address these issues. The lawsuit was filed in response to California’s inaction.

In Vergara and Cruz, plaintiffs have focused their cases on issues more substantial than asking for more money — a new trend in education litigation, Dunn said.

Plaintiffs in Vergara seek to overturn three education statues — the first grants teachers permanent status after 18 months of teaching, which they say isn’t enough time to gauge whether the teacher is effective; the second makes it difficult to dismiss teachers for poor performance; the third requires layoffs be based not on performance, but on seniority. Because of these policies, they argue, students — especially poor and minority students — are often instructed by ineffective teachers and are thereby denied a constitutional right to a quality education.

HIGHER LEARNING? A new lawsuit in California alleges schools aren’t spending their time actually teaching students.

Cruz addresses how the hours in the school day are spent.

“Trying to demand that schools actually spend their time during the school day teaching students, that is a more substantive focus. That’s not what we typically see with these school reform cases — usually it’s just ‘give us more money,’” he said. “That might be lurking in the Cruz case. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but it’s still interesting that they’re placing the emphasis on these schools mismanaging their time.”

Dunn referred to a 1970s court case, Serrano v. Priest, where the California court ruled that every school ought to spend the same amount of money per student. The Cruz case could be an effort to get around the Serrano decision and direct more money to certain schools, Dunn said. The argument here would be that equal education for every child requires more funding in some schools than in others.

“I would say that (Cruz) is a way of getting around Serrano, and Vergara is where they’re relying on Serrano. Yes, (Serrano) requires equal education, and if you’re going to say equal education, equal spending, it also makes sense that it requires an equal right not to be taught by illiterate teachers,” he said. “Even though it’s taking a different tack on Serrano, it still seems to be cut from the same cloth. They’re trying to demand substantial reforms to educational delivery, not just more money.”

Soller declined to comment on whether Cruz was intended to work around Serrano, but the law firm’s official news release addresses the issue of money.

“The solutions this action seeks are not simply spending more money but using current resources in a manner designed to provide meaningful classroom education,” it reads.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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