(David McNew/Getty Images)
(David McNew/Getty Images)

A lawsuit filed Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court charges that state education officials have failed in their duty to provide adequate classroom learning time in schools that serve impoverished minority communities.

The suit was filed on behalf of students in seven schools across the state — including Oakland’s Castlemont and Fremont high schools and a grade school in Richmond. It charges that instructional time is curtailed by a wide range of factors.

Those include a high rate of teacher turnover, an “extreme shortage” of counselors and other personnel, inefficiency in how students are assigned to classes, and the frequency of school lockdowns because of gunfire and violence on or near school campuses.

In particular, the lawsuit targets what it says is the widespread practice of assigning students in the plaintiffs’ schools to free time, giving them errands to do or simply sending them home during the school day because classes are unavailable to them.

Kathryn Eidmann, an attorney for the educational rights law firm Public Counsel, cited an example from Oakland.

“Instead of being placed in meaningful courses, students are placed in faux courses called ‘Inside Work Experience’ in Oakland, where they perform administrative tasks like making copies and running errands for teachers instead of engaging in meaningful instruction,” she said.

Plaintiffs include 18 students in seven schools in Oakland, Richmond, Los Angeles and Compton. Attorneys for the students, led by Public Counsel and the ACLU of Southern California, are seeking to have the suit certified as a class action.

The suit names the state, the California Department of Education, the state Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson as defendants. It alleges that the failure to address the factors that lead to lost learning time in the state’s most troubled school districts violates students’ fundamental right to education.

The suit argues that even though state officials are aware of the many issues that lead to lost learning time in classrooms, they have done too little to support school districts in dealing with them. Ultimately, the suit says, state officials are responsible for providing resources to correct the myriad problems that are eroding instructional time.

“A lot of students don’t realize that these problems are a result of a failure by the state to deliver equal educational opportunities and put sufficient supports in schools,” Eidmann said. “Students unfortunately think it’s because of them. They say, ‘Oh, this teacher left because the students are bad, or why would any teacher want to stay in a school like this?’ And that’s simply not true and we can’t let students believe it any longer.”

Oakland schools spokesman Troy Flint said Thursday the district is already taking steps. For example, he said that Castlemont is moving to block scheduling to cut down on empty class periods.

“It’s about finding ways to better compensate teachers and principals to create stability,” Flint said. “It’s about managing better from a central office level, so sites feel supported and so that students receive the services they need.”

California schools Superintendent Torlakson and state Board of Education President Michael Kirst issued a statement saying that while they hadn’t yet reviewed the lawsuit, they intend to continue the state’s “historic effort to shift authority over decision making to local school districts, empowering them to determine how best to meet the needs of the students they serve.”

Below: a copy of the complaint, Cruz et al. v. State of California et al.

KQED’s Isabel Angell contributed to this post.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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