HomeCaliforniaHistoric settlement: California allocates $2 billion for equal education amid pandemic fallout

Historic settlement: California allocates $2 billion for equal education amid pandemic fallout

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California – During the intense discussions about closing schools due to the pandemic in 2020, a lawsuit in California claimed that the state had not met its duty to provide equal education to students from lower-income backgrounds, as well as Black and Hispanic students, who had limited access to online resources.

Recently, a settlement was reached where California agreed to allocate a minimum of $2 billion from pandemic relief funds to assist these students in catching up. The settlement includes specific measures on how this money should be used. Mark Rosenbaum, one of the main attorneys representing the affected students, called this a “historic settlement” aimed at helping those most in need.

“Kids weren’t getting anything close to the education that was deserved, and that was baked into a system of inequities to begin with,” he said.

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Rosenbaum pointed out that these students were previously receiving an inadequate education, which was part of a broader pattern of inequality. The settlement mandates that school districts must pinpoint and evaluate the students who need the most help and spend the funds on proven intervention methods. Studies indicate that strategies like regular, small-group tutoring and additional academic time during school vacations can lead to substantial educational improvements. According to state officials, these funds are part of a larger budget already designated for school districts, though this requires approval from the legislature. This move represents a continued effort to support the most disadvantaged students.

“This proposal includes changes that the administration believes are appropriate at this stage coming out of pandemic,” said Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the California State Board of Education.

The lawsuit did not challenge the initial statewide decisions to declare emergency measures or shut down schools, actions taken by nearly every state in early 2020. Instead, it focused on how California managed the remote learning phase. During this time, the state had one of the longest durations of school closures in the nation. The complaint specifically addressed the period from spring to fall of 2020. During this phase, state officials distributed over 45,000 laptops and more than 73,000 other computing devices to students, court documents reveal.

By September 2020, an estimated one million children, about 20% of California’s public school students, lacked adequate access to online education, as revealed in court documents. The lawsuit, which included several families from the Oakland and Los Angeles school districts, highlighted various challenges faced after schools closed. For instance, some second graders attended online classes only twice during that spring; siblings had to take turns using a single laptop for their classes; and one family, living under the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport, struggled with poor internet service.

Elizabeth Sanders, a spokesperson for the California Department of Education, stated that the state responded quickly when schools transitioned to remote learning, securing a million computers for students by fall 2020. However, the lawsuit contended that California did not meet its responsibility to ensure “basic educational equality,” particularly noting that many students lacking reliable internet and access to educational materials were from lower-income, racially diverse backgrounds.

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Recent national research highlights the enduring effects of the pandemic on education. It shows that U.S. students have only recovered about a third of their academic setbacks in math due to the pandemic, with the gap in educational achievement widening, especially for students in economically disadvantaged areas.

Robert Kim, executive director of the Education Law Center, a legal organization not involved in the lawsuit, noted that while nearly all state constitutions include clauses that courts interpret as requiring a meaningful and equitable education, similar legal challenges are not commonly seen in other states.

Other pandemic-era school litigation has often focused on school closures, mask and vaccine mandates, or the education of students with disabilities.

California’s Constitution and case law, though, is particularly strong in framing public education as a “fundamental concern of the state,” Mr. Kim said.

Mr. Rosenbaum said California was chosen in part because it has the country’s largest public school population, with more than five million students, but similar cases could have been brought elsewhere.

“You could take a dart and throw it at a map of the United States, and you definitely would hit a state where kids suffered as a result of the pandemic,” said Mr. Rosenbaum, a lawyer with Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm in Los Angeles, who worked on the case with lawyers from the law firm Morrison & Foerster.

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The political climate in California, known for its commitment to equitable education, might have influenced the outcome of a recent legal case, according to experts. Although the $2 billion allocated for addressing learning losses is just a small portion of California’s annual education budget, which exceeds $100 billion, it represents a significant commitment. Additionally, the state benefited from federal aid aimed at helping schools bounce back from the pandemic impacts, receiving $15 billion that is set to run out in September.

Under federal rules, only 20% of this aid needed to be used to mitigate learning losses, and there were minimal guidelines on how the funds should be allocated. The recent legal settlement, however, demands a more rigorous approach, introducing greater oversight and accountability for how school districts use these funds. Families involved in the lawsuit will not receive individual compensation, as stated by Lakisha Young, founder and CEO of the Oakland REACH, a parent organization that supported the families during the lawsuit.

Young expressed a deep sense of fulfillment from the process, saying, “my heart kind of bursts to be able to say to them, ‘Your voice does matter.’”

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