The state Education Department has ignored its obligation to ensure that all California students receive a minimum level of instructional time, predominantly affecting those who are minorities and from low-income families, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The lawsuit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court by the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Counsel and others, contends the lack of quality learning time for these students is in violation of the state Constitution's equal protection guarantee because the state does not ensure all students have access to an adequate education.
State officials did not immediately comment on the litigation.
Cruz vs. California, filed on behalf of students from seven schools, including campuses in the Los Angeles and Compton school districts, aims to protect the rights of students as the state fails to address a wide disparity in educational opportunity, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.
"Something as basic as learning time — real learning time — is disproportionately distributed to kids as a function of their ZIP Code," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California. "The kids who go to these seven schools have a set of challenges that kids in schools elsewhere could never dream of, let alone confront."
The schools named in the lawsuit include Fremont High School and Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School in L.A. Unified; Castlemont High School and Fremont High School in the Oakland Unified School District; Nystrom Elementary in the West Contra Costa Unified School District; and Compton High and Franklin S. Whaley Middle School in the Compton Unified School District.
The complaint contends that students at these schools lose days, weeks and months of classroom instruction over the course of their education careers as a result of chaotic campuses that lack resources and stability.
Among the causes: unstable and transient staffing of teachers, counselors and administrators; a lack of course offerings that can lead students to be assigned to free periods or administrative tasks rather than courses with instruction; the frequent interruption of class by violence or security issues; chronic student absenteeism and a lack of mental health professionals.
Officials from the Compton and Los Angeles school districts did not comment Thursday morning.
The class-action lawsuit asserts that the state is aware of but fails to act to bridge the gap in instruction time as students fall behind, drop out or move on unprepared for the rigors of college because they are not provided as much learning time as their peers elsewhere.
"Those kids never get a coherent, organized, comprehensive education," Rosenbaum said. "The result is you have a dual school system. You have one school system that treats kids like they're part-timers, and you got another system that gives full-time education."
Students at Fremont High School in Los Angeles faced nearly all of those challenges, according to the lawsuit.
The school, which is comprised of almost entirely black and Latino students, had a revolving door of administrators, with four principals in the four years prior to the 2012-13 school year, according to the lawsuit. Teachers are frequently absent and long-term substitute teachers teach some classes for months. Students are regularly subjected to violence inside and outside of school and lack the services to help them cope with such trauma, the lawsuit alleges.
In 2010, then-L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines instituted sweeping changes to turn around the persistently low-performing high school. He required all staff members — including teachers, counselors, custodians and cafeteria workers — to reapply for their jobs. Less than half of the teaching staff returned. The district also transformed the campus into a math and science magnet school.
Critics argued that the district mismanaged the school, oversaw repeated changes in administration and disregarded genuine efforts by teachers to improve the campus.
The litigation calls on the state to establish a system of tracking the days and minutes of instruction that accounts for time lost, rather than relying solely on the academic calendar. When a school falls short, the state should intervene to correct and prevent further lost time, according to the lawsuit.
A lack of counselors and course offerings have led students like Jessy Cruz, 18, a Fremont senior, to get lost in the shuffle.
Because of frequent changes in his foster care placement, Cruz transferred from Fremont for a few months during his sophomore year, but returned the same year. The counseling staff failed to alert his teachers, who had marked him absent the entire time. A lawyer had to intervene for Cruz to receive credit for the work completed at the other school. Once he returned, he had little help in figuring out how to get back on track to graduate, he said.
Cruz now lacks the credits to graduate on time. Still, he was placed in three periods that have no instruction this semester. He hopes to finish enough credits this summer to finish and move on to a community college.
"We don't have a college center anymore. I took classes I didn't need," Cruz said. "I was missing credits. I should have been taking classes that I needed. That's time being wasted."
Briana Lamb, 17, who will graduate from Fremont in a few weeks, will attend Cal State Northridge in the fall. She worries that her school left her unprepared for college.
"I shouldn't have to question when I graduate and go off to college: Am I prepared?" she said. "Nobody of any race, of any color, should have to go to a university and feel like you don't belong there."
The disparity in resources between her school and others is clear, she said.
"It's unfair," she said. "It's not a secret. You can look at other communities and other schools and see the things that they offer."
Students at these schools believe that the state has given up on them, Rosenbaum said.