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State, ACLU Settle Suit on Education

The agreement would set aside up to $1 billion to repair deteriorating schools, many of them in L.A. It requires a judge's approval.

August 11, 2004|Duke Helfand and Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration and the American Civil Liberties Union have tentatively settled a major education lawsuit that accused the state of denying poor children adequate textbooks, trained teachers and safe classrooms, lawyers for both sides said Tuesday.

The proposed agreement would require the state to devote as much as $1 billion over a period of several years for 2,400 low-performing schools to repair deteriorating facilities and $50 million to assess such needs. It also would provide nearly $139 million this year for textbooks.

The tentative pact in the Williams vs. California suit, which was reached after five months of negotiations, would provide additional resources and beefed-up oversight for the bottom third of California's schools as ranked by scores on standardized tests.

ACLU attorneys hailed the proposed agreement as a revolution for the education of poor children in California and praised Schwarzenegger's efforts to settle the case, an about-face from his predecessor, Gray Davis, whose administration spent $18 million fighting it.

"It's going to end generations of neglect with respect to these kids," said Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU's Southern California legal director. "The state is stepping up for the first time in its history to satisfy its constitutional and moral responsibility."

The lawsuit, which was filed in May 2000 in San Francisco Superior Court, alleged that the state deprives tens of thousands of low-income students the necessities for a quality education, such as adequately trained teachers, functioning toilets, modern textbooks, and proper heat and air conditioning.

Named after a San Francisco middle-school student, Eliezer Williams, the suit argued that such conditions violated the California Constitution's requirement that all students receive a free and equal public education.

In addition to the ACLU, the suit was filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the nonprofit San Francisco law firm Public Advocates and the Morrison & Foerster firm.

The deal would establish a process for students, teachers and parents to report complaints, and it would give county education superintendents powers to monitor low-performing campuses to ensure adequate textbooks and other necessities, including qualified teachers.

County officials would report their findings to local school boards and the state.

The two sides were scrambling to reach an agreement so state lawmakers could pass legislation, as expected, to enact many of the agreement's reforms before adjourning Sept. 1. For example, existing education money that is currently unspent must be redirected to fund the $1 billion for school repairs.

A Schwarzenegger spokeswoman said the settlement, which must be approved by a San Francisco Superior Court judge, reflected the governor's desire to resolve the matter.

"The governor believes that we should spend our time, energy and money fixing what is wrong with our schools and not fighting them," said Ashley Snee.

"He wanted to find a settlement that was in the best interest of all California students. That's what we found."

Not everyone was as enthusiastic. Some educators said the proposal offered too little money and too much paper-pushing.

Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, said that he was glad the case was ending but that the settlement "relies heavily on bureaucratic solutions."

Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer said he was pleased with the extra funds and support that the agreement would provide. But he echoed O'Connell's concern about increased bureaucracy, and said the district had acted to address some of the problems identified in the settlement. The Los Angeles district's current $14-billion construction program, for example, aims at eliminating an unpopular calendar at crowded schools that shaves 17 days off the school year.

The Los Angeles Board of Education, which oversees a large number of schools involved in the case, on Tuesday approved the agreement, although with some reservations. The settlement did not require the board's support, but state officials wanted it.

Sweetie Williams, the father of the lead plaintiff in the case, said he was thrilled that an agreement had been reached.

"I thank God that it's coming to an end," Williams said. "This has been a great opportunity not only to help my children [but] also to remind parents that we've got to stand up for what is right."

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