Landmark Lawsuit on Behalf of Public School Students Demands Basic Education Rights Promised in State Constitution

May 17, 2000 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES–Acting on behalf of nearly 70 students in the California public schools, a coalition of civil rights groups today filed the most comprehensive lawsuit to date concerning the bare minimums required for education ever to be brought against a state.

The class-action lawsuit charges the state with reneging on its constitutional obligation to provide the bare essentials necessary for education and says that officials violated state and federal requirements that equal access to public education be provided without regard to race, color, or national origin.

“These are schools that shock the conscience, schools where students can’t learn and teachers can’t teach,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Legal Director of the ACLU of Southern California, a joint participant in the lawsuit with the ACLU of Northern California and other groups. “These schools are the shame of California.”

Among the conditions cited in the lawsuit are:

Lack of Materials and Basic Resources

  • no textbooks or other educationally necessary curricular material
  • too few textbooks or other educationally necessary curricular material
  • outdated or defaced textbooks
  • no or not enough basic school supplies
  • no access to a library
  • no or not enough access to computers and computer instruction
  • not enough labs
  • no or not enough lab materials
  • no access to music or art classes
  • too few guidance counselors

Inadequate Instruction

  • as few as 13% of teachers with full teaching credentials
  • chronically unfilled teacher vacancies
  • heavy reliance on substitute teachers in place of permanent teachers
  • no homework assignments due to lack of materials

Massive Overcrowding

  • classes without enough seats and desks, so students sit on counters
  • cramped, makeshift classrooms
  • multitrack schedules that curtail the calendar length of courses
  • multitrack schedules that prevent continuous, year-to-year study in a given subject
  • multitrack schedules that force students to take key exams before completing the full course of study

Degraded, Unhealthful Facilities and Conditions

  • broken or nonexistent air conditioning or heating systems; extremely hot or cold classrooms
  • toilets that don’t flush; toilets that are filthy with urine, excrement, or blood; toilets that are locked
  • lack of working water fountains
  • unrepaired, hazardous facilities, including broken windows, walls, and ceilings
  • vermin infestations
  • leaky roofs and mold
  • no school nurse on premises

“The failures this lawsuit addresses are not randomly distributed,” observed Julie Su, Litigation Director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, another participant in the lawsuit. “They are concentrated in communities of color, in economically struggling communities, and in immigrant communities. The state’s neglect has a clearly discriminatory impact.”

Data from the California Department of Education show that in the schools the 18 students attend, 96.4% of the population is students of color, compared to 59% statewide.

“In one of the only problem categories measured by the state — the percent of uncredentialed teachers in a school — the correlation is clear,” Su added. “These numbers aren’t the result of coincidence: this system discriminates.”

Data also show that the more students of color attend a school, the more untrained teachers will be teaching at that school. The same holds true for students who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.

“At the start of the 21st century, all of California’s children should be attending state-of-the-art learning centers,” said Hector Villagra, a staff attorney at Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Yet, just as Latino children have become the majority of our state’s public school children, California has ignored rampant overcrowding and the urgent need for new school construction, depriving hundreds of thousands of children of the most basic element of an acceptable educational experience.”

The ACLU noted that today’s lawsuit was being filed on the 46th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision declaring racially segregated schools unconstitutional.

“Forty-six years ago today, the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education rejected a system of inequality that had come to be accepted by many in this country as a natural state of affairs,” said Ramona Ripston, Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California. Today, we are asking this country to reject another system of unequal education, a system that blocks some children from learning and growing to their full potential. The State of California has the resources to provide all children with a good education, and we cannot afford to do anything less.”

“This is the Mississippification of California’s schools,” Ripston added, “a separate and unequal system for the have-nots that would make Linda Brown shudder.”

The case is Williams et al., v. State of California, filed in California Superior Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California; ACLU of Northern California; Morrison & Foerster; Public Advocates, Inc.; Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Newman, Aaronson, Vanaman; Center for Law in the Public Interest; Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Karl Mannheim, Esq.; Allan Ides, Esq, and Peter Edelman, Esq.

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