MAYBE YOU THINK THAT A SCHOOL WITH FILTHY, UNUSABLE BATHROOMS is a bad thing. Maybe you also think it's deplorable to deprive poor, minority children of both textbooks and fully qualified teachers, while also sticking them in crowded, vermin-infested classrooms, ones that freeze in winter and bake in summer.

Do such conditions really hinder a good education? And is it illegal or even unfair that some children get lousy public schools while more prosperous families send theirs to good ones?

Could you prove it in court?

Proving that horrible learning conditions are indeed horrible may sound a bit like certifying that day is day and night is night. But that's exactly where things stand in the case of Williams v. California, where advocates seek to hold the state legally responsible for unacceptable learning conditions at schools, especially because a disproportionate number of poor and minority children attend these schools.

Advocates want the court to require a new state oversight system that would correct such inequities, while attorneys brought in by Governor Gray Davis are doing everything they can to keep this politically embarrassing lawsuit from going anywhere.

The class-action suit, filed by the ACLU and other public-interest and private lawyers, has now dragged on for more than two years. Though filed in San Francisco, the case has involved 35 children from 14 Los Angeles schools and 15 students from six other L.A. County school systems. Most recently, nine months of settlement talks have broken off, so once again lawyers for the state will be issuing every legal challenge possible, including questioning, in effect, whether day is day and night is night.

“While it may seem ridiculous, we're now in a position of having to prove that kids need textbooks to learn,” said ACLU spokesman Tenoch Flores.

Ridiculous or not, the ACLU and its partnering attorneys have done the job, assembling 15 education luminaries. And while these experts may be asserting much that is obvious, they also seem to take righteous pleasure in doing so. One scholar, former New York Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol, refused to accept compensation either for his report or for any subsequent testimony. He declares, among other things, that inhumane conditions send a negative message to students that dampens academic success.

There's also a report from Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond, in which she contends that the quality of teaching actually affects what a student learns, a subject to which she's devoted much of her research career.

UCLA professor Jeannie Oakes takes on verifying that textbooks are a good thing. She relies heavily on studies from developing nations, because U.S. policymakers and researchers “have simply taken for granted that textbooks and curriculum materials are available to students” in this country.

Virginia Tech professor Glen Earthman, in his report, reviews evidence that learning is hampered by overcrowding, not to mention freezing or sweltering classrooms. Research scientist Ross E. Mitchell looks at the “Concept 6” calendar, which shortens the school year by about a month for the purpose of packing more students into a school.

THE HIRED LEGAL GUN OPPOSING THESE ADVOCATES IS L.A.'S OWN O'Melveny & Myers, whose attorneys argue that the state is not legally responsible for classroom conditions. It's an imperfect defense, given that the state has selectively asserted substantial jurisdiction over schools, including this past year when it insisted on massive reform at 10 Los Angeles campuses.

In the Williams battle, the state also tried countersuing school districts, including L.A. Unified, to shift the blame. The countersuit was put on hold by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Peter J. Busch.

Another strategy is picking apart the suit piece by piece — asserting, for example, that the state has no obligation regarding bathrooms, so that anything relating to a bathroom doesn't count. A ruling on that motion is pending.

At one point, O'Melveny attorney John F. Daum challenged whether the learning conditions at schools named in the suit were all that inhospitable in the first place. “We went to school after school after school,” Daum told the judge, “and what we discovered was . . . that sure, there are schools that have problems, sure, there is a teacher shortage. But again and again the specific allegations that plaintiffs make in their complaint are not true.”

So far, O'Melveny, whose fees have claimed millions of taxpayer dollars, has succeeded only in pushing the likely trial date into 2003. Which means that California's self-proclaimed education governor won't have to deal with unremitting, discomfiting headlines during his re-election campaign.

“He'd probably like it to be another governor's problem to fix conditions for the neediest kids,” speculated Catherine Lhamon, an ACLU staff attorney.

The view from the other side is that the state can't do it all, can't usurp all local control and can't accomplish reform overnight, said Ann Bancroft, a spokesman for Kerry Mazzoni, Governor Davis' education secretary. Bancroft enumerated a slew of recent initiatives addressing problems cited in the lawsuit, while also noting that the Davis administration has increased education funding and helped to refine the school-accountability system.

But to date, accountability has meant little more than student test scores. There's no real, direct accountability for the conditions in which learning takes place, even though these most certainly affect the results.

After all, if the state had an overt policy of putting blacks or Latinos into inferior schools, that policy would not stand. The children who get the raw deal today are not targeted by race, but most of them are, in fact, black or Latino, because these are the children of the poor, noted Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of ACLU's Southern California chapter. “The experts' reports document a two-tier school system,” said Rosenbaum, “that is the modern-day equivalent of the separate and unequal school system condemned by the Supreme Court nearly a half-century ago.”

LA Weekly