'Schools that [still] Shock the Conscience'
by UCLA IDEA
Week of July 16-20, 2011
Twelve years ago, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of California public school students against the state and various education agencies. Williams v. California asked for relief from “schools that shock the conscience” and levied two basic complaints: That the state failed to provide students with even the most “basic” level of education; and that the harm caused by inadequate instructional materials, unqualified teachers, and unsafe and insecure school facilities fell disproportionately on poor and minority students.
The conditions that prompted the lawsuit were well known to many who attended or worked at poor and minority schools? Overcrowded classes were held in temporary buildings that were uncomfortably hot, cold or noisy. Bathrooms were closed and/or unclean. About 40 percent of teachers in low-income schools reported vermin infestations—cockroaches, mice and rats.
Williams was settled in 2004—and provided $800 million for facilities repairs along with complaint procedures, inspection protocols, and other oversight. The settlement and all its components and subsequent legislation were meant to give students in every California neighborhood access to adequate facilities and resources. Much progress was made in the first years following the settlement, but recently California's fiscal woes have undercut the settlement's promise.
California has funded less than half of the $800 million, and some schools have waited up to four years for the money to fix leaking roofs and crumbling buildings (California Watch). Conditions at many schools are worse than pre-Williams. Stan Brown, a director of maintenance and operations at a Riverside County school district, is waiting on $75 million for repairs. "I think the title says enough, doesn't it? Emergency Repair Program. Should it take four years to fund an emergency?"
As usual, California is “leading” a national trend of states that are struggling or unwilling to provide their residents with basic needs, including education. According to the State Budget Crisis Task Force, there is a "fundamental shift in the way governments have responded to recessions and appears to signal a willingness to 'unbuild' state government in a way that has not been done before" (New York Times). The task force released a report this week that looked at six large states—California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia—and found severe and mounting fiscal challenges, especially as states rely on gimmicks to balance budgets.
The Williams settlement was rightly claimed as a victory for California students. The student plaintiffs, their families, and their communities presumed that the settlement would help achieve a double objective—basic and equitable education for all. Ultimately, the state's failure to fully fund emergency repairs has left too many California students waiting for the decent schools that are their constitutional right.