In the fall of 2020, around the height of the pandemic school closing debate, a lawsuit in California made a serious claim: the state failed in its constitutional obligation to provide an equal education to low-income, black and Hispanic students, who had less access in online learning.
Now, in a settlement announced Thursday, the state has agreed to use at least $2 billion earmarked for pandemic recovery to help those students still trying to catch up. And it includes guardrails on how the money can be used.
Mark Rosenbaum, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, described it as a “historic settlement” that ensures the money goes to students “in greatest need.”
“Kids weren’t getting anything close to the education they deserved, and that was built into a system of inequality in the first place,” he said.
The settlement will require school districts to identify and assess students who need the most support and use the money for evidence-backed interventions. Research shows that some interventions, such as frequent small group teaching and extra learning time during school breaks, can produce significant gains.
State officials say the money — which will come from a larger pot of dollars already set aside for districts, pending legislative approval — is part of an ongoing commitment to serving the most vulnerable students.
“This proposal includes changes that the administration believes are appropriate at this stage after the pandemic,” said Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the California State Board of Education.
The lawsuit focused not on the state’s decisions to issue pandemic emergency orders or close schools — things nearly every state did in the spring of 2020 — but on California’s response during distance learning.
Although California has had some of the largest school closures in the country, the case focused only on the first few months, from spring to fall 2020.
State officials distributed more than 45,000 laptops and more than 73,000 other computing devices to students, according to court documents in the case.
But as many as one million children — about a fifth of California’s public school population — were left without adequate access to online classes by September 2020, according to an estimate in court records.
The lawsuit, which represented several families in the Oakland and Los Angeles school districts, described the aftermath of the school closures: Some second-graders had online classes only twice in the spring. The siblings had to share a single laptop, taking turns to attend classes. a family living under the flight path to Los Angeles International Airport had only a weak Internet connection.
Elizabeth Sanders, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said the state “acted immediately” when students were sent home from school and helped secure one million computers for students by fall 2020.
The lawsuit, however, argued that California had failed to meet its obligation to provide “basic educational equity,” noting that many of those without stable internet and access to tutoring were lower-income students of color.
New national research released this week underscored the long-term impact of the pandemic and distance learning: U.S. students have made up just a third of their pandemic losses in math, and inequality has widened, with students in poor communities are at a greater disadvantage than they are. it was five years ago.
While nearly all state constitutions have provisions that have been interpreted by courts to require meaningful, fair or adequate public education, “I haven’t seen so many examples of similar challenges in other states,” said Robert Kim, executive director of Education Law Center, a legal education group that was not involved in the case.
Other pandemic-era school disputes have often focused on school closings, mask and vaccine mandates, or the education of students with disabilities.
The California Constitution and case law, however, are particularly strong in framing public education as a “fundamental concern of the state,” Mr. Kim said.
Mr. Rosenbaum said California was chosen in part because it has the nation’s largest public school population, with more than five million students, but similar cases could have been brought elsewhere.
“You could take a dart and throw it at a map of the United States and you would definitely hit a state where children suffered as a result of the pandemic,” said Mr. Rosenbaum, a lawyer with Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm. in Los Angeles, which worked on the case with attorneys from the law firm Morrison & Foerster.
Politics in California — where the governor and state officials have embraced equality in education — could also play a role in the outcome, legal experts said.
The $2 billion is a fraction of California’s total education budget, which exceeds $100 billion annually. The state also received federal aid to help schools recover from the pandemic, including $15 billion that expires in September.
Federal law required only 20 percent of the dollars to be spent on learning loss, with few parameters for how the money was spent.
The settlement seeks to adopt a stricter approach, with greater oversight and accountability for districts.
The families in the lawsuit will not receive personal compensation as part of the settlement, said Lakisha Young, founder and CEO of Oakland REACH, a parent group that worked closely with the families in the lawsuit.
But, she said, “it breaks my heart to be able to tell them, ‘Your voice matters.’