California targets $2 billion for students injured by distance learning to settle lawsuit

In the fall of 2020, at the height of the debate over school closures due to the pandemic, a lawsuit in California made a serious claim: The state failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide equal education to low-income, black and Hispanic students, who have less access to online learning.

Now, in a settlement announced Thursday, the state has agreed to use at least $2 billion in pandemic recovery funds to help those students still trying to catch up. And it includes safeguards for how the money can be used.

Mark Rosenbaum, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, described it as a “historic settlement” that ensures the money will go to students who are “most in need.”

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

The settlement will require school districts to identify and assess students who need the most support and use the money for evidence-based interventions. Research shows that certain interventions, such as frequent small group teaching and extra study time during the school holidays, can bring significant gains.

State officials say the money — which will come from a larger pot of dollars already set aside for districts, pending legislation approval — is part of an ongoing commitment to serving the most disadvantaged students.

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

The lawsuit focused not on state decisions to issue pandemic emergency orders or close schools — things nearly every state did in the spring of 2020 — but on California’s response during distance learning.

Although California had some of the longest school closures in the country, the case only covered the first few months, from spring to fall of 2020.

State officials distributed more than 45,000 laptops and more than 73,000 other computing devices to students, according to court documents in the case.

But as many as one million children—about a fifth of California’s public school population—were left without sufficient access to online classes by September 2020. according to an estimate in court records.

The lawsuit, which represented several families in the Oakland and Los Angeles school districts, described the aftermath of the school closures: Some second-graders had only two online classes that spring; brothers had to share one laptop, taking turns to attend classes; a family living under the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport had only a weak Internet connection.

Elizabeth Sanders, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said the state “reacted immediately” when students were sent home from school and helped provide 1 million computers for students by fall 2020.

The lawsuit, however, argued that California failed in its obligation to provide “basic educational equity,” noting that many of those without consistent internet and access to classes were lower-income students of color.

A new national study released this week underscored the long-term impact of the pandemic and distance learning: American students have recouped only a third of their math losses since the pandemic, and inequality has widened, with students in poor communities at a greater disadvantage. were five years ago.

Although nearly all state constitutions have provisions that courts have interpreted to require meaningful, equitable or adequate public education, “I haven’t seen so many examples of similar challenges in other states,” said Robert Kim, executive director of the Education Law Center, a non-profit education law group. was involved in the case.

Other pandemic-era school disputes have often focused on school closings, mask and vaccine mandates, or the education of students with disabilities.

California’s constitution and case law, however, are particularly strong in establishing public education as a “fundamental concern of the state,” Mr. Kim.

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

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

Politics in California — where the governor and state officials have embraced equality in education — also may have played a role in the outcome, legal experts said.

The $2 billion is a fraction of California’s total education budget, which is ongoing more than 100 billion dollars annually. The state also received federal aid to help schools recover from the pandemic, including 15 billion dollars which expires in September.

Federal legislation required that only 20 percent of the dollars be spent on learning loss, with few parameters on how the money was spent.

The settlement seeks to take a stricter approach, with more oversight and accountability for districts.

The families in the lawsuit will not receive personal compensation as part of the settlement, said Lakisha Young, founder and executive director of Oakland REACH, a parenting group that has worked closely with the families in the lawsuit.

But, she said, “it kind of breaks my heart to be able to tell them, ‘Your voice matters.’

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