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California lawsuit claiming literacy as a constitutional right can move to trial

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | July 24, 2018



You have to go to school, but schools aren’t required to teach you to read and write.

Now a judge has ruled that California can be put on trial for failing to give low-income students equal access to literacy instruction. 

ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos, which was made public Monday, means that the court will hear evidence that the state of California is failing hundreds of thousands of public school students — who are mostly low-income students and students of color — by allowing a system that requires them to attend school yet deprives them of access to basic literacy instruction.

The suit claims to be the first in the nation to seek recognition of the constitutional right to literacy.

A trial is expected to take place in October 2019.

Ella T. v. The State of California was filed in Los Angeles in December 2017 on behalf of 10 students attending three schools in three districts: LA Unified’s La Salle Avenue Elementary, Van Buren Elementary School in the Stockton Unified School District, and Children of Promise Preparatory Academy, a charter school authorized by Inglewood Unified. Two advocacy organizations are also plaintiffs: Los Angeles-based CADRE, a community-based organization in South Los Angeles led by African-American and Latino parents of children attending LA Unified schools, and Fathers & Families of San Joaquin in Stockton.

The state had sought to dismiss the case, arguing that “the fact that some students do not read at grade level is not a constitutional violation,” but the judge denied the state’s petition in her ruling, which was filed Friday.

A similar suit in Michigan was dismissed earlier this month by a federal judge who ruled that access to literacy is not a fundamental right. It was filed by the same Los Angeles-based law firm that is backing the California case, Public Counsel, which said last week that it plans to appeal the Michigan ruling.

“Today’s ruling is a step forward for California students who are asking for nothing more than the tools and resources necessary for a basic literacy education,” Public Counsel attorney Mark Rosenbaum said Monday in a statement. “This ruling allows us to have our day in court to prove how California is failing these students by depriving them of the right to literacy. Literacy is the key that opens doors, provides opportunities and gives our kids a fighting chance at success in life.”  

Michael Jacobs, a partner with Morrison & Foerster, another law firm working on the California case, said in a statement, “We are pleased that the court is allowing us to proceed with this lawsuit. We are optimistic that we will be able to demonstrate that the state can and must do more to ensure that all students have access to literacy.”

The lawsuit states that in the 2016-17 school year, only 4 percent of students attending La Salle Avenue Elementary scored proficient on state tests in English language arts, meaning only 8 out of the 179 students who took the test could read and write at grade level. In the fourth grade at Van Buren Elementary in Stockton, only one student scored proficient.

In 2012, the state Board of Education identified “a literacy crisis” in California’s school system, so the state’s own literacy experts came up with a “Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Plan” and concluded it was urgent that the state implement such a plan. The Ella lawsuit argues that the state never implemented a literacy plan, “nor did it implement any other targeted literacy remediation plan or take any other steps to ensure that school districts were offering students access to literacy.”

“Sacramento’s negligence is indefensible,” said Bill Lucia, president of Edvoice, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Sacramento working to ensure all students have equitable access to a quality public education. “There’s no defense for the fact that roughly 3 million of California’s 6.2 million public school students can’t read at grade level, or that Californians like Raymond Aguilar say they learned to read not in public school, but in prison. As this suit moves forward and Sacramento bureaucrats scramble to avoid responsibility for the state’s illiteracy crisis, a generation of kids are being denied their right to learn.”

The lawsuit demands that the state of California ensure that:

  • students have enough trained teachers who can teach the curriculum and be able to provide individualized intervention when necessary.
  • teachers get the classroom resources and professional development they need so they can deliver meaningful literacy instruction.
  • parents are included in their children’s literacy education and schools communicate with them and give them the tools they need to help their children.
  • schools provide conditions that allow for learning, such as social-emotional support.

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