Back to School Without Books: Many CA Students Still Lack Textbooks, ACLU Charges

September 12, 2000 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES–Civil rights groups filed legal papers today seeking to require California education officials to ascertain whether public school students have textbooks to use in class and at home in each of their core subjects.

The motion was filed in connection with the American Civil Liberties Union’s landmark class-action lawsuit, Williams v. California, which charges the state with reneging on its constitutional obligation to provide the bare essentials necessary for education, without regard to race, color, or national origin.

“Students and teachers are back to school,” said ACLU of Southern California staff attorney Peter Eliasberg, “but the State of California is playing hooky. It simply does not know what it ought to know and has no plan to find out. There’s no control and no responsibility, and as a direct result many California students still don’t have the most basic of all learning tools: a book.”

In responding to ACLU requests for information, state officials said that they did not know whether public school students in California have books to study and claimed that it has no responsibility for ensuring that they do.

The legal request filed today asks the California Superior Court to appoint a neutral expert to design and carry out a survey of California teachers asking them about the availability of textbooks in their classes.

In fact, the ACLU said, the defendants in the class action lawsuit, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, the California Department of Education, and the State Board of Education, generally confirmed their ignorance of public school students’ access to textbooks and other instructional materials.

When asked recently to identify California public schools in which the availability of textbooks falls short of state standards, defendants’s attorneys replied, “Defendants do not have this information. The extent of educational materials in all districts is unknown.”

Their attorneys also maintained that the State Board of Education is not “in charge” of determining if “textbook availability falls below district-set standards.”

But the ACLU said that the California Legislature has clearly recognized that the state constitution requires the state to ensure that all students have textbooks and other instructional materials.

In 1994, the Legislature declared that, “…education is a fundamental interest which is secured by the state constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law, and…to the extent that every pupil does not have access to textbooks or instructional material in each subject, a pupil’s right to educational opportunity is impaired.” (uncodified Section 1 to Education Code section 60177).

“When schools fail, students have rights guaranteed by California’s Constitution,” said Jack Londen, partner at Morrison & Foerster, pro bono co-counsel in the case, “but the State’s educational agencies don’t respond, and don’t even know when public schools fail to provide every student with the books and materials required for learning.”

Students who don’t have textbooks expressed anger and frustration about the difficulties they face in learning.

“It makes me mad not to have books,” said Manuel Ortiz of Watsonville, a junior. “I don’t remember things quickly, so it’s hard for me to learn, even if I have books. I really need a book to take home so I can learn.”

“We mostly don’t get homework in my math class because we don’t have books,” said Silas Moultrie, an eighth grader at Luther Burbank Middle School in San Francisco. “Without books, we’re not getting the education we should be getting.”

“Students across the state, from Watsonville to Los Angeles,” said Catherine Lhamon, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, “are struggling to learn grammar, foreign languages, math, science, and history without a book to take home and study. In an era of high-stakes testing and fiercely competitive university admissions, the lack of a textbook can alter the course of their lives. Someone has to take some responsibility for this.”

Attorney Londen agreed. “Nobody at the state level knows whether students are receiving texts,” he said.”They’re just signing the checks. That’s not the return the people of California expect or deserve for our investment in education.”

“An obvious first step is to get an accurate idea of the extent and severity of the problem,” he added. “The state should have a system for finding that out, but it doesn’t. This motion seeks to address that gap in basic accounting.”

The lawsuit is brought by the ACLU affiliates of California, Morrison & Foerster LLP, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Public Advocates, Inc., Center for Law in the Public Interest, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Professors Karl Manheim and Alan Ides, Peter Edelman of the Georgetown University Law Center, and Robert Myers of Newman.Aronson. Vanaman.

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