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California and the West

Suit Could Take Years to Affect Schools

Reform: Experts say ACLU action holding state responsible for substandard campuses will move slowly through courts.


The lawsuit holding the state responsible for substandard conditions in its urban schools could focus much needed attention on the problem but could take years to have any impact on the lives of schoolchildren, legal scholars and educators agreed Thursday.

The suit faces a lengthy journey through the courts and, if successful, would probably endure subsequent delays as legislators decide how to address the vexing problems it raises.

Citing similar cases in Ohio, New Jersey and other states, experts predicted that students may have to put up with inadequate textbooks, bathrooms and other subpar conditions for another decade or more.

"This is not a quick and dirty deal," said UC Berkeley law professor Stephen Sugarman. "There will be big fights. It will become a battle of education experts and a battle of politics."

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleges that state officials have violated the California Constitution by denying an equal education to tens of thousands of minority students who attend schools beset by myriad problems, ranging from a lack of desks and overcrowded classrooms to vermin infestations.

The 18 schools cited by the ACLU are predominantly in low-income communities and are populated mostly by blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans.

The state Constitution requires that California's top officials ensure an equal education for all students, but the state's education system is not designed to follow through on the legal commitment, experts say.

In a report released this week about school resources, researchers at the UCLA School of Law found that the state relies on a patchwork of rules and regulations "comprised almost entirely of holes."

The state sets no clear standards for the conditions in which students are expected to learn, and little or nothing is done to enforce the "vague" standards that do exist, according to the researchers.

Among the UCLA findings:

* There are no specific state standards requiring public schools to provide heat in winter, but specific regulations do exist to ensure heat, ventilation and air conditioning in schools for traffic violators.

* There is no clear state requirement that schools have functioning toilets.

* Regulations exist to protect California workers against workplace infestations by rats and cockroaches, but no such regulations exist to protect schoolchildren.

"At the same time that state leaders demand accountability from schoolchildren, what have they done to fulfill their own Constitutional obligations?" the report asks. "Only in cases of serious financial mismanagement or outright corruption do state officials intervene."

California, like other states, has traditionally handed off authority to school districts and their boards of education in the name of local control. The idea is that local authorities will be more responsive than bureaucrats sitting in offices hundreds of miles from a school.

In California there are 1,000 districts with 8,000 schools, each with its own problems and needs.

"I would challenge the notion that there is no accountability system," said one state education official who asked not to be named. "All local school boards are elected. That's where the rubber meets the road in terms of true responsibility.

"Does a parent really want to call up the California Board of Education if a teacher is showing a noneducational movie in class, or go to a local school board?" the official added. "If you're going to have a state being responsible for every item, then what's the point of having local school boards?"

On one point most agree: California's public schools are straining to accommodate unprecedented growth--the result of immigration, an improving economy and other factors.

Local school officials find themselves scrambling to build new campuses, or to maintain aging and rundown buildings. They also are struggling to hire enough qualified teachers and to cobble together other resources to meet the soaring demand.

One way they deal with the surging numbers is to bus students and switch to year-round calendars. Busing is often held up as a burden that interferes with learning.

One of the schools named in the ACLU lawsuit, Jefferson High School, buses 500 students to other campuses each day because the school lacks room for them. The same numbers game plays out at scores of campuses in Los Angeles and other cities.

"We're being inundated with new students," said James Morante, a spokesman for the California School Boards Assn., which represents nearly all of the state's 1,000 school districts.

"The problem is finding the funding and finding the location for new schools, especially in urban areas," Morante said. "Once you build the school, how do you find enough qualified teachers to staff it? It's a complex issue. There are no easy answers at this time."

In other states, civil rights groups have sought answers by turning to the courts--with mixed success.

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