Bitter battle over class standards
State spends millions to defeat students' suit
San Francisco Chronicle
Monday, May 5, 2003
Nanette Asimov, Staff Writer
Next year, a California judge will have to decide if all public school students
are entitled to the same quality of textbooks, teachers and classrooms -- or
A "yes" answer could profoundly change the classroom experience for thousands of
students as the state would be forced tore direct education dollars toward
problems it now overlooks. A "no" would keep the status quo.
Deceptively simple, the question is prompting state officials and civil rights
lawyers to amass experts on both sides of the issue, much of it at taxpayer
Lawyers suing the state on behalf of California's low-income students have
retained 14 experts from around the country to argue that children who are
denied modern textbooks, qualified teachers and other basic resources suffer a
permanent disadvantage in life.
Lawyers for Gov. Gray Davis have hired 13 other experts who say just the
opposite -- that low-income students are unlikely to do any better in school
even with the same educational benefits as middle-class students.
The battleground is Williams vs. California, a class-action lawsuit filed in San
Francisco Superior Court in May 2000 on behalf of about 1 million pupils, or 1
in 6 California students. It's a case the state has spent almost $18 million to
defend so far.
The students say they are fed up with an epidemic of poor textbooks, unqualified
teachers and vermin-infested schools. They want Davis to set minimum standards
of school quality as he has done for academic progress. Under the plan described
in the suit, the state would do three things: track which schools lack
"essential learning tools and conditions"; quickly provide those tools and
repair poor conditions; and "provide basic educational necessities" to all
Anything less violates the California Constitution, the suit says.
STATE HIRES FIRM TO FIGHT PLAN
But the state has steadfastly opposed the plan, calling it too expensive and
better suited for individual districts to tackle.
So far, Davis has paid $13 million in public funds to the Los Angeles law firm
O'Melveny & Myers to fight the students. In addition, the state attorney
general's office has spent almost $5 million defending the office of the state
superintendent of schools in the case.
Together, the $18 million is enough for a year of schooling for 2,700 students.
How the lawyers have spent the money is unclear. At one point, The Chronicle
learned that O'Melveny attorneys had stayed at the posh Park Hyatt hotel in San
Francisco, where the lowest corporate rate is $285 per night.
Despite repeated requests from The Chronicle for O'Melveny's bills for fees and
expenses associated with the case, the state has refused to provide these
records, calling all details about the attorneys' charges privileged
Lawyers are representing the students for free, although the public would pay
their expenses and "reasonable fees" if they win. In Los Angeles, the American
Civil Liberties Union represents the students, and in San Francisco, Public
Advocates and Morrison & Foerster.
As The Chronicle previously reported, the state's lawyers already have taken the
depositions of some students, one of whom was 8 years old. Now, in advance of a
trial set for Aug. 30, 2004, both sides have lined up experts to testify for and
against providing qualified teachers, up-to-date texts and clean classrooms to
The state spent $305,808 on written reports by their experts, while the students
spent $127,651 on theirs.
"Textbooks, curriculum materials and technology are fundamentally important to
students' education everywhere, and the consequences of not having access
to them are particularly harsh in California's high-stakes, standards-based
education system," writes UCLA education Professor Jeanne Oakes, an author of
the state's education Master Plan.
Oakes said most California students have such things, but thousands lack them.
Harvard economics Professor Caroline Hoxby, well known among academics for her
support of tax-funded vouchers for private schools, takes a different view in
her report for the state.
ROLE OF PARENTAL INFLUENCE
In a section titled "How Important Are Schools in Determining Achievement? How
Important Is Parental and Local Involvement?" Hoxby argues that heaping too many
benefits into schools can undermine parental influence.
"The vast majority of variation in students' achievement is explained not by
their schools, but by what their parents do and how much their neighborhood
supports education," Hoxby writes. "Parents' and neighborhood effects on
students are so great compared to schools' that a policy that decreases parents'
or neighborhood effects will almost certainly be harmful overall, even if it
improves schools' effect on students."
Another contentious area in the case is whether the 1 in 4 students who are
learning to speak English in California need specially
Education Professor Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University says they do. He writes
that California "recognizes that 'English learner' teachers need specialized
training" and offers two special credentials in that area.
He argues that a dearth of trained teachers is causing English learners to
struggle more than is necessary in school, especially
when trying to pass the high school exit exam -- soon to be a graduation
"Over 37,000 underprepared teachers-in-training are currently teaching (English
learners) in California classrooms," he writes.
Not surprisingly, the state's expert in this area, education Professor Russell
Gersten of the University of Oregon, calls Hakuta's
"There is no reliable evidence showing that teachers holding (special
credentials) have a greater positive impact on English learners than teachers
that do not hold such certification," he writes.
Gersten says that California's recent emphasis on phonics, new academic
standards and midcareer training for teachers "are likely to
enhance the achievement of English learners."
AREAS OF DISAGREEMENT
Among other areas of disagreement are whether year-round schooling to ease
overcrowding is harmful (experts for the state say no; experts for the students
say yes); whether relying on voters to approve periodic bond measures best
addresses school building problems (state says yes; students say no); and
whether pouring more resources into schools is a waste.
It is a waste, says Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution, Stanford
University's conservative think tank, because years of research show that doing
so "is unlikely to improve student outcomes."
Yet to Stanford education Professor William Koski, such benefits are "the
missing ingredient in California's recipe of high standards and strong
Deciding who is right may be what it all comes down to next year when Judge
Peter Busch, who was appointed by Davis just after the suit was filed, makes a
decision that could change the course of state schooling for years to come.
E-mail Nanette Asimov at