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ACLU Sues California For 'Equal Learning Time'

California high school students Briana Lamb and Cristian Gaspar are named in the ACLU's equal learning time lawsuit.
ACLU SoCal/Public Counsel
California high school students Briana Lamb and Cristian Gaspar are named in the ACLU's equal learning time lawsuit.

The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that high poverty schools in California are denying students the learning time they need to succeed. The problem is so great and so pervasive, the lawsuit claims, that it violates the state constitution. "We just celebrated the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed, and some of these schools are in worse shape than those in Topeka," says ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum, referring to the district that gave the landmark case its name.

The lawsuit names students including Briana Lamb as members of the class. In the fall of 2012, when Lamb showed up for her junior year at Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles, she says her schedule was full of holes. "I had four 'home' periods, and one 'service,' " she said. A home period means just that: the student must go home. During a service period, sometimes you help teachers do photocopying or pass out papers. Lamb says that at other times it just means sitting around. That meant Lamb had actual classes for just a few hours a day--not enough to graduate on time. "It made me nervous," she said. "I knew exactly what classes I needed to be in to finish my 11th grade requirements." But it took weeks to sort them out.

The suit, Cruz et al. v. State of California, was filed in Alameda Superior Court with co-counsel Public Counsel. In a statement, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said, "While neither the California Department of Education nor the State Board of Education has had an opportunity to review the specific claims made in today's suit, we believe continuing to implement California's Local Control Funding Formula—rather than shifting authority to Sacramento—is the best way to improve student achievement and meet the needs of our schools, and we will resist any effort to derail this important initiative through costly and unnecessary litigation." The Local Control Funding Formula, enacted in last fall's budget, is intended to restore school budgets to pre-recession levels with an extra boost for funding for schools with high-needs students.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is not named in the suit, had no immediate comment.

The ACLU has spent years filing lawsuits challenging inequities in educational materials and facilities, but this is the first case to address the basic factor of time spent on learning. The class action suit names students at seven schools in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. The complaint cites several interrelated factors that, it claims, systematically cut into learning time:

  • Administrative and staff turnover. At Fremont High, the lawsuit claims, just before the school year started in 2012 the principal's job and all four assistant principal positions were vacant. They were eventually filled with last-minute and interim appointments.
    High turnover among both administrative and teaching staff, plus a lack of counselors, leads to scheduling and staffing chaos, the ACLU says. At Fremont, that wasn't resolved for almost three months. In the meantime, many students had blank schedules and spent the day in the auditorium.
  • Teacher turnover. Teachers at high-poverty schools are more likely to leave midway through the year or at the end of two-year contracts, the ACLU says. New teachers need transition time, which cuts into teaching. As well, higher teacher absences lead to overuse of short-term substitutes – another loss of instructional time.
    "I had a math class, I think it was Algebra I, where we had a sub for a month," says Lamb. "She said, 'I'm not a math teacher. I can't help you. I'm sorry. Maybe you can help each other.' "
  • Scheduling. At these schools, many more students need to repeat the basics – like ninth-grade reading — which sucks up extra time and resources. The ACLU claims that doesn't leave enough teachers to offer electives or honors courses. That's why so many high school students end up being sent home at lunch.
  • Crime. Sexual assault, robbery, harassment, and gang recruitment are common just outside school gates. Safety worries keep some kids home, the lawsuit claims. Plus, classes grind to a halt for periodic "lockdowns" triggered by warnings of gang violence. "My phone was snatched a month and a half ago, right outside of school," says Lamb. "I'm still pretty shaken up about it."
  • Trauma. A shortage of trained mental health counselors means teachers and administrators have to take time away from teaching and learning to try to help students focus on recovering and surviving from the many personal struggles they face, the ACLU says. And those struggles cause those students to miss school more often and makes them more likely to transfer schools.
    "My sophomore year, my mom passed away and my dad got really sick," Lamb recalls. "But nobody took the time to see why I wasn't passing. Everybody just assumed I didn't care about school. They mentioned to me, 'You know, the GED is always an option', and I was only like a sophomore."
  • None of these complaints are exactly new in high-poverty schools, either in California or across the nation. But by shining a light on the severity of these issues, using the frame of equal learning time, and invoking the state constitution, Rosenbaum says the ACLU hopes to prod action. He noted that two previous equity cases settled fairly quickly after negotiations with state officials, and that potential solutions are "not tough stuff," like assigning more counselors to schools to work on schedules and mental health. "Our hope is that we don't have to spend years trudging through the courts."

    This post was updated to reflect the State of California's response.

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    Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.