By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Gray Davis finally won one last week: The outgoing governor scored in a court case that could affect hundreds of thousands of California schoolchildren for years to come. But it’s not the kind of victory that many would cheer.
A Superior Court judge has concluded that the state is not to blame if rats run through a public-school classroom, if ceiling tiles fall or if the stench in a school bathroom overpowers. Or even if students lack textbooks. Nor is it necessarily the state’s business if poor students have to suffer these conditions while students from prosperous families do not.
The pre-trial ruling, in Williams vs. California, begins to define the legal battlefield about who’s responsible for the state’s unequal public schools and what should be done about it. For more than three years the case has sent shudders through the education establishment, because it fundamentally challenges the state’s entire approach to the business of schooling. It lays bare the dirty truth that children in Beverly Hills aren’t getting the same deal as children in Lynwood’s poor neighborhoods, even though they need the opportunities of a sound education even more than their well-heeled neighbors to the north. This albatross has now outlived the Davis administration and will become an early test of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commitment to the children of the poor.
To Davis and various school districts, including L.A. Unified, the entire costly exercise has distracted from ongoing, successful reforms. The outgoing administration argued that it should have been trusted to continue its efforts, while also leaving much of the job to local school districts.
Judge Peter Busch appeared to side mostly with Davis. Busch wrote that there are limits to what the state can and should do, especially during difficult financial times. Although “the State must sometimes intervene to ensure that its public school system does not deprive students of basic educational equality, that does not mean that the State must intervene whenever any student experiences any degree of inequality.” For one thing, wrote Judge Busch, the state must respect the authority and initiative of local school districts.
The opposing advocates, including ACLU attorneys, had asked the judge to rule in their favor without even going to trial, by granting a “summary judgment.” They argued that the state constitution stands overwhelmingly on their side, and also that their case rests on fundamental notions of decency, justice and civil rights.
Busch not only denied the motion, he also suggested that the Davis administration holds stronger legal cards if the case goes to trial.
It comes down to what level of government is responsible, and local government comes first, said Fram Virjee of O’Melveny & Myers, the L.A-based law firm that is representing the Governor’s Office. State intervention could be called for, said Virjee, only if the matter is sufficiently serious, and “only after the individual student has demonstrated that the terrible problem exists and that they’ve tried to get the district to fix the problem and the district can’t or won’t fix it.”
The ACLU’s Peter Eliasberg retorted that “the kid who is sitting in the classroom where the roof leaks is blameless. This attitude of ‘Let’s say it’s not our problem and that it’s the local school district’s problem’ – that’s not a real commitment to the kids.” He also insisted that his side has plenty of evidence to prevail at trial.
Gray Davis may beleaving office, but it’s hard to separate his identity from this litigation — especially because his rhetoric put education front and center.
“Schools with filthy, unusable bathrooms are deplorable,” said Davis spokesperson Hillary McLean. “The Davis administration and the entire education community are opposed to the same thing. But we fear this lawsuit would hinder the structure and nature of our reform efforts.” And she was ready with the list of these reforms, including refined student testing, special assistance for low-performing schools and a 30 percent increase — $9.6 billion — in funding for education along with successful bond campaigns that made billions available for new construction. Said McLean: “Poor and minority students are the very first ones to get the benefit of these efforts and improvements.”
Try telling that to Amanda Piercy, who filed a declaration with the court over the summer after completing her freshman year at Balboa High in San Francisco. “The bathrooms at Balboa are really gross,” she said. “A lot of the stalls in the girls’ bathroom have doors that are broken so that you can’t lock them and there is no privacy. If you try to shut the door it just swings open. Often there is no soap in the dispensers or the dispensers are broken . . . The toilet seats are dirty and have something gooey on them. A lot of the time there is no toilet paper and the toilet paper dispensers are broken. It’s not just one particular bathroom at Balboa — they are all like that. I only go to the bathroom at school if I really have to go, and when I do it is always a bad experience. I hold my breath.”
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