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California Parents and Advocates Sue the State for Constitutional Right to Education as Setbacks Continue Under Remote Learning

Educational Inequities for Black and Brown Low-Income Students are Multiplying

ALAMEDA, CALIFORNIA – November 30, 2020 – This morning, seven families, along with Community Coalition and The Oakland REACH, filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against the State of California for failing to meet its Constitutional obligation to ensure basic educational equality. 

“These families and organizations are coming forward to hold the State accountable for educating children in their communities,” said Jesselyn Friley, Staff Attorney at Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law Project. “The education children were offered before the pandemic did not meet the standards set by California’s constitution, and what they’ve received since March 2020 is education in name only.”

As the state entered safer at home orders in March 2020, students across California were sent home and began a period of remote education, which continues now, almost nine months later. But a slew of challenges starting with lack of digital connectivity and access to devices, ineffective remote instruction and a lack of academic or mental health support has exacerbated an inequitable learning environment. The lack of support for students is met by a similar lack of support for teachers and parents, who are taking on an unprecedented level of work without the support they need to be secondary educators to their children.

“The impact of the pandemic on California’s most vulnerable students has been to deny them in far too many instances even the semblance of an education, dramatically widening an already indefensible opportunity gap with their more privileged counterparts,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Director of Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law Project. “Remote learning may not be preventable, but the remoteness of California officials to the desperate educational needs of its children is.”

As the state fails students, community-based organizations have stepped in and provided the high-quality individualized support creating meaningful change. Community Coalition (CoCo) devised a virtual summer program targeting academics, technology and wellness. Their approach took into account English language proficiency and other nuances that characterize the community of parents and students in Southern California. Similarly, The Oakland REACH instituted a program called The City-Wide Virtual Hub, designed to help parents work with their children with their virtual education. 

Lakisha Young, co-Founder and Executive Director of The Oakland REACH describes the power of good programming in the face of these stark differences. “California schools have failed to educate Black and Brown families for decades and COVID-19 and remote learning have proved to be no different. We listened to what families needed and we built a solution, the City-Wide Virtual Hub, to make parents leaders in their children’s education. And it’s working: students from the most underserved neighborhoods have made real academic gains in literacy through our virtual learning model. Meanwhile, the system failed to act — it was weeks into the school year before the district and the teachers’ union in Oakland even reached an agreement on remote learning. That’s why we’re demanding California give families like ours the power we’ve always lacked and long deserved.”

California’s education system was already straining to meet its obligation to all of its students with low-income, Black and Brown families bearing the brunt of the institutional failure. For example, as of January 2020, in the Oakland Unified School District, only 18.6% of Black students and 23.8% of Latinx students were reading at grade level.  In the same district, where less than 1 in 5 Black children can read, 72.5%, of white children were meeting or exceeding standards.

Plaintiff Bella R. is a second-grade student who attends an LAUSD magnet school. When remote learning started in March she didn’t have regular instruction, only 30-40 minutes twice a week, or a reliable internet connection. As a result, she started the 2020 academic year behind. The individualized education program she was in consideration for in the 2019-2020 school year was never initiated because of remote learning and, consequently, she fell even further behind. Bella wasn’t offered any kind of individualized support at school until November, at which point her mother and an outside organization called Speak UP worked with her to supplement her school instruction. 

Education is a critical avenue for students like Bella to reach their full potential and ultimately, provide economic stability for their families and communities. The toll of remote education on countless students like Bella is incalculable. 

“The purpose of this lawsuit is to address the educational inadequacy we are witnessing in schools in underserved districts in California, as seen by what’s happened to Bella R. The State of California is directly responsible for these inadequacies that disproportionately affect low-income, underrepresented minority, and homeless students,” said Shaelyn Dawson of global law firm Morrison & Foerster. “Due to the State’s insufficient attention to the actual circumstances of remote learning under the COVID-19 pandemic, disadvantaged students are being deprived of their fundamental right to a free and equal education guaranteed by the California Constitution. It is time to hold the State accountable for its refusal to fulfill its constitutional obligation.”

Read the complaint HERE.


Public Counsel is the nation’s largest not-for-profit law firm of its kind – filing groundbreaking civil rights litigation, advancing justice through legislative and policy advocacy, and providing direct legal services that help tens of thousands of low-income people every year in California and across the nation. 

The Oakland REACH is a parent-run, parent-led group committed to empowering families from our most underserved communities to demand high-quality schools for our children. To date, we have engaged over 5,000 parents by hosting one-on-one conversations about how schools are doing. Because of our relationships with families and proven track record organizing grassroots campaigns that have resulted in policy wins and system shifts, The Oakland REACH is in an incredibly unique position to support the community during COVID19. We launched our biggest and boldest initiative yet, the City-Wide Virtual Family Hub in June 2020 with 200 families. Phase two launched this fall with nearly double the number of students.

Morrison & Foerster is a global law firm with more than 1,000 lawyers in 16 offices across the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Our clients include some of the largest financial institutions, investment banks, Fortune 100, and technology and life sciences companies. Our lawyers are committed to achieving innovative and business-minded results for our clients, while preserving the differences that make us stronger. The firm also has a long history of commitment to the community through providing pro bono legal services, including litigating for civil rights and civil liberties, improving public education for poor children, advocating for veterans, promoting international human rights, winning asylum for the persecuted, and safeguarding the environment.

Community Coalition is a community organizing institution whose mission it is to transform the social and economic conditions in South LA that foster addiction, crime, violence and poverty by building a community institution that involves thousands in creating, influencing and changing public policy.

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