They Sued Because California Didn't Have A Plan To Teach Kids To Read. Now They're Settling.

A teacher at Pacific Avenue Education Center in Glendale reads to her students in Spanish. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

As a second grader, "Ella T." had the literacy level of a preschooler. She couldn't spell basic words — paper, dear, need, help — and could "barely write a complete sentence," according to a court filing.

At La Salle Elementary in South Los Angeles, staff knew the child wasn't making progress. But Ella T. only received a handful of short tutoring sessions, her attorneys said: The school "does not have the resources to deliver meaningful literacy interventions."

Ella T.'s attorneys didn't blame the school; they blamed the state of California. In 2017, they sued, arguing that state education officials knew of a "crisis" of reading and writing in California public schools, yet failed to muster the money or a plan to address it.

On Thursday, an L.A. Superior Court judge approved a settlement in Ella T. v. California in which state leaders, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, agreed to take steps to address the plaintiffs' concerns.

The settlement demonstrates that Newsom and his administration are "serious about addressing the fact [that] right now, California is bringing down the nation," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Mark Rosenbaum.


A screenshot from the 2017 lawsuit "Ella T. v. California." (Public Counsel/Morrison & Foerster LLP)

In the 2017 complaint (screenshot above) attorneys included a sample of "Ella T.'s" writing. They said it illustrated that, at the time, she "could barely write a complete sentence."

According to her attorneys, it reads, "Der Governor. I can improve the school. supplies eras piso cupiso. shrpo pars yes. I ned eshu hlpe."


WHAT'S IN THE SETTLEMENT

As part of the agreement, state education officials have agreed to a three-year, $50 million grant program to improve reading and writing instruction in 75 struggling schools. Newsom included money for the effort in his budget proposal.

"The state will make certain," said Rosenbaum, who's with law the firm Public Counsel, "not just that they have the financial resources, but that they have programs in place ... [that] meet all the evidence-based factors that we know work in terms of teaching kids how to read."

Along with two advocacy organizations, the case listed 10 students as plaintiffs: Ella T. and nine others — all students of color — who attended struggling public schools in L.A., Inglewood and Stockton.

Rosenbaum said Ella T.'s school, La Salle Elementary, is one of the 75 schools eligible to receive money from the grant program, as is the Stockton school named in the case.

The settlement also calls for new statewide guidance to schools calling for less-punitive discipline, along with a Blue Ribbon Commission to study the topic. Rosenbaum said that's because students' social and emotional needs are often barriers to learning to read.

A LITTLE HISTORY

The plaintiffs had sought to establish that the California constitution guarantees all public school students the right to quality instruction in reading and writing — so in settling the case, state officials avoided a legal judgment that might have set a costly precedent.

In their original complaint, the plaintiffs pointed to a plan state education officials wrote in 2012. In it, experts concluded California faced an "urgent need" to improve literacy instruction, particularly for black and Latino children.

"Many students will be at academic risk if improved approaches to literacy instruction are not an immediate and central focus of California's educational system," the authors of the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Plan said.

State education officials countered that this "plan" was simply an application for federal grant money that California never actually received.

In any event, the plan was never put into action — which, in their 2017 lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued was evidence that state leaders were failing in a fundamental obligation to California's six million public school students.

The state argued the plaintiffs should be suing their schools or districts for poor performance, not Sacramento. Since 2013, the state had been pumping billions of new dollars into its K-12 system, all while giving local school districts more freedom to decide how to spend their funding.

But in 2018, L.A. Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos disagreed with the state's argument. In a ruling allowing the case to proceed, she wrote that "while the state delegates to agencies for operation of the school system, the state is ultimately responsible for public education."

'THE LONGEST-RUNNING URGENT PROBLEM IN THIS COUNTRY'

State lawmakers must still approve the $50 million grant program.

"The key," said Rosenbaum, "is not so much the money, but it's to make sure what comes out of that money — the programs, the training, the teachers — are equipped to deliver [for] those children."

When asked whether $50 million over three years would make much difference in a state that spent more than $81 billion in the 2019-20 academic year on K-12 education and community colleges, Rosenbaum said the money would be a huge boost to the struggling schools that receive it.

"If you're asking if this is going to solve the longest-running urgent problem in the history of this country — that all children don't receive equal educational opportunity — the answer is definitely not," he said. "But for the tens of thousands of kids in these schools, this is going to make a difference."