California allocates $2 billion to students affected by remote learning to settle lawsuit

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

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

Mark Rosenbaum, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, described it as a “landmark agreement” that ensures the money will go to the “neediest” students.

“Children were not receiving anything close to the education they deserved, and that was embedded in a system of inequalities to begin with,” he said.

The agreement will require school districts to identify and evaluate students who need the most support and use the money for evidence-backed interventions. Studies show that certain interventions, such as frequent small group tutoring and extra learning time during school holidays can produce significant benefits.

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

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

The lawsuit focused not on the state’s 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 remote learning.

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

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

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

The lawsuit, which represented several families from the Oakland and Los Angeles school districts, outlined the consequences after schools closed: Some second graders had online classes only twice that spring; siblings had to share a single laptop, taking turns attending classes; A family living under the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport had a weak internet connection.

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

However, the lawsuit argued that California had failed to meet its obligation to provide “basic educational equality,” noting that many of those without consistent internet or access to instruction were low-income students of color.

New national research released this week underscored the long-term impact of the pandemic and remote learning: American students have made up only a third of their math losses during the pandemic, and inequality has widened, with students from communities poor people at a greater disadvantage than them. They were five years ago.

Although nearly all state constitutions have provisions that courts have interpreted as requiring meaningful, equitable or adequate public education, “I haven’t seen many examples of similar challenges in other states,” said Robert Kim, executive director of the Education Law Center. , an education legal group that was not involved in the case.

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

However, California’s Constitution and jurisprudence are particularly strong in framing public education as a “fundamental concern of the state,” Kim said.

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 occurred 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 suffered as a result of the pandemic,” said Rosenbaum, an attorney with Public Counsel, an organization of pro bono lawyers. firm in Los Angeles, who worked on the case with attorneys from the law firm Morrison & Foerster.

Politics in California, where the governor and state officials have embraced equity in education, also could have influenced the outcome, legal experts said.

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

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

The agreement seeks to adopt a stricter approach, with greater 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 worked closely with the families in the lawsuit.

But, she said, “my heart bursts to be able to tell them, ‘Your voice matters.’”