Lawsuit alleges California’s literacy policies fail many students

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Lawyers sued California education officials in Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday on behalf of ten public school students, alleging the state deprived these and many other students of a constitutionally guaranteed basic education because officials failed to teach students critical reading and writing skills.

“The state has long been aware of the urgency and the depth of the all too preventable illiteracy crisis and yet it has not implemented a single targeted literacy program to remedy this crisis,” said Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer with Public Counsel, which along with the firm Morrison & Foerster filed the suit.

To support their allegations, lawyers submitted Stanford University researchers' ranking of the 26 lowest performing school districts in the U.S. based on literacy and basic education. Nearly half of the districts on the list are in California. The school districts include those that enroll students in Los Angeles, Santa Ana, San Bernardino, Fontana and Anaheim.

Four of the student plaintiffs attend LaSalle Elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In the 2016-2017 school year, 96 percent of the school’s students failed to meet the standards for their grade level in English set out by state officials. Those test scores remained nearly the same the previous two years.

Teachers supporting the lawsuit described an ad hoc approach to helping students learn to read because they received little guidance and support from administrators.

“I remember that when I taught kindergarten, teachers from all grades – second, third, fourth, even fifth – often sent their students to my kindergarten class because they often needed basic instruction in phonics,” said David Moch, a former teacher at LaSalle and one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

The suit asks the court to require state officials to implement appropriate literacy screening, instruction, intervention and create a way for the state to find out when students aren’t getting proper literacy instruction and intervenve.

The California Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations in the lawsuit.

This suit is the latest in a string of actions in the last decade by public interest lawyers and other groups seeking intervention by the courts to make major changes to how public education is carried out in California instead of making the changes through state law. Some of the suits have sought to eliminate teacher tenure, improve services to English learners, and compel schools to help students cope with trauma to improve their learning.

In 2016, California's Supreme Court let teacher tenure laws stand, while California education officials agreed to improve monitoring of English learners. A lawsuit against Compton Unified alleging inadequate student trauma services is ongoing. Rosenbaum helped file the latter two lawsuits.

Poverty and trauma may challenge some of the lowest performing students, lawyers who filed this suit said, but that doesn’t erase public schools’ responsibility to help all students attain an adequate education.

“It should go without saying that this does not reflect the intelligence, or the capability, of the drive of these students or their parents, many of whom have time, after time, after time, attempted to do what is necessary in order that these children have an opportunity to learn,” Rosenbaum said

The lawsuit included reproductions of writing samples from students in several elementary school grades. The writing by the younger students was not comprehensible, while the writing by the older students had many misspellings and poorly structured sentences.

Lawyers said California education officials could have done more five years ago to improve these students’ ability to read and write if they’d adopted a statewide plan that called for urgent action to improve literacy by adopting a system wide literacy instruction and testing.

This lawsuit, lawyers added, is also a reflection of the inability of elected officials in Sacramento to enact laws to improve literacy instruction.

While state test data shows that a portion of California’s six million plus students are struggling with basic learning, that same test data shows some good news.

“I think overall we’re seeing some positive signs, some promising signs,” said Standford University literacy and language researcher Ramon Martinez.

He pointed to the state’s growing graduation rate as one example.

One of the most promising changes on the state level, Martinez said, is the expansion of bilingual education and other programs that promote the learning of two languages. The expansion of this type of education is helping California students whose first language isn’t English to walk onto school every day and have their home language skills seen as an asset rather than a liability.