Without Comprehensive Change, Grounded in Proven Programs and Supports, California’s Most Underserved Students May Never Catch Up
ALAMEDA, CALIFORNIA – MAY 3, 2021 – As students and families in California surpass the one-year mark of a radical experiment in remote education and begin returning to the classroom, a group of students and community-based organizations are filing a preliminary injunction, pushing the State to meet its Constitutional obligation to educate all students. While the State’s plan, passed by the legislature as AB/SB 86, offers financial assistance to districts for partial reopening, it does not provide any oversight or enforcement ensuring that students get the academic and mental health support that they need, and it ignores high-need districts that urgently require support, regardless of their reopening plans.
“Throughout the pandemic, the State has shown little interest in owning up to its responsibility making sure that underserved students are learning,” said Jesselyn Friley, Staff Attorney at Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law Project. “Unfortunately, that has not changed as schools begin to reopen even as it’s clear to us that reopening alone is not the answer. We are bringing this motion now so that students can get the targeted help that experts agree they need.”
The impact of the inequities embedded into the education system has never been clearer, with everything from technological hardware to live instruction time differing dramatically, depending on the race and income level of families in California.
In late November, a group of students and community organizations joined together to sue the State of California for failing to meet its duty to ensure that students receive the basic education required by the Constitution. Issues including digital connectivity and access to devices, ineffective remote instruction and a lack of academic or mental health support have put families in an excusable bind being asked to navigate increasingly complicated days of instruction with little support.
“South LA students and parents faced major educational inequities that were only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Marianna Hernandez, Prevention Manager at Community Coalition. “Students are experiencing significant levels of learning loss, coupled with social emotional challenges due to increased isolation and a lack of connection to their peers. The digital divide has posed additional issues as students struggle to get connected to their online classes due to a lack of broadband internet access and devices. We are calling for immediate relief to ensure that students are provided a high-quality online education, while also ensuring that funds are distributed equitably to the highest-need schools as schools begin to re-open.”
A study from Policy Analysis for California Education uncovered distinct achievement gaps between socioeconomically disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers, with English language-learners facing the steepest drop off in achievement. While the current debate has centered on reopening schools as the answer, data suggests Black, Asian, and Latinx students won’t come back to the classroom as quickly and when they do, they will face steeper hurdles.
Michael Jacobs, attorney at Morrison & Foerster summed up the stakes. “The State’s inaction has set up our children to fail. We need urgent intervention, including oversight, assistance, and enforcement from the State, to reverse course and afford all children in California a fair measure of what they need to learn and to catch up. Anything less is not enough.”
Kelly R., a parent with two children at LAUSD describes the push-and-pull of being a parent in these conditions. “While my children’s school switched to remote learning in March, the transition was extremely difficult. Both of my children’s teachers did not have reliable internet, so my children were only receiving 30-40 minutes of instruction a couple times each week. I understand that schools are opening up again for in-person learning. Although I did consider sending both back, I don’t think it’s worth them through all that just to sit in a classroom a few hours each week and still risk exposure. I get anxiety just thinking about all this.”
This relief the lawsuit is seeking is grounded in programs that families have seen work for their children during this period of remote education. Community Coalition (CoCo), a community organization based in South L.A., devised a virtual summer program targeting academics, technology and wellness support for both students and parents. Their approach considered English language proficiency, special education needs, the technology divide 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 providing technical assistance and training, offering high-quality academic instruction and maintaining an open line of communication with families.
“Our families have spoken, and our Virtual Hub is not going anywhere: in fact, we are growing and expanding from serving 200 students to as many as 1,000 students in a year,” said Lakisha Young, co-Founder and CEO of The Oakland REACH. “The state needs to start recognizing that the school reopening conversation is different for different families – 50% of families of color in Oakland are choosing to keep their kids home in remote learning, for example. It’s time the system starts moving with urgency to adapt to the needs of families — recognizing that not everyone has the same supports at home or the same comfort with going back in person — and starts learning from programs like the Hub that parents are leading and demanding.”
As recently as December 2020, at least 11 of the 25 largest school districts in the state were still distributing devices to students and in the fall of 2020 nearly 40% of low-income student lacked reliable internet, months into their remote education. This lack of connectivity undoubtedly contributed to overall learning losses. A McKinsey report analyzing fall 2020 data found schools that predominately serve students of color lost 10% more learning on average, with students of color likely to lose up to twelve months of learning by the end of the 2020–2021 school year, compared to a loss of four to six months of learning for their white peers.
Low-income students and students of color are also more likely to have had family bear the disproportionate effects of the pandemic, from job loss to death, and prior to the pandemic schools were their primary mental health resource with access to counselors, social workers and therapy.
“The pandemic was unavoidable, but the academic and emotional harm to students from the pandemic was not,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Public Counsel’s Robins Kaplan Director of Opportunity Under Law. “Rather than accept their constitutional responsibilities to ensure that all children had devices and connectivity so that they could engage in remote learning, State officials turned their heads so that for more than a year no education was possible for the most marginalized of California’s children. We bring this motion to stanch the loss of even more learning time and to give these children a fighting a chance to catch up. Passing the buck is not the same thing as stepping up and making sure that opportunity gaps between the haves and have nots widen no further.”
- Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction HERE.
- Family Declarations HERE.
- Organizational Declarations 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. We are expected to serve 1,000 students this summer due to incredible demand and proven results.
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. Since the pandemic began, CoCo has distributed close to 1 million in mutual aid relief to South LA families including but not limited to computer devices, hotspots, rent assistance, utility bill assistance, grocery gift cards, PPE, and numerous resources.