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California students sued because they were such poor readers. They just won $53 million to help them

Sonali Kohli and Iris Lee, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Two years ago, a group of students and their teachers sued the state of California for doing a poor job teaching kids how to read -- 53% of California third-graders did not meet state test standards that year, and scores have increased only incrementally since. On Thursday they won $53 million so that the state's lowest-performing schools have the resources to do better.

Under the settlement with the state, most of the funding will be awarded over three years to 75 public elementary schools, including charters, with the poorest third-grade reading scores in California over the last two years. The agreement comes after the novel lawsuit contended that the students' low literacy levels violated California's constitutional mandate to provide all children with equal access to an education, said attorney Mark Rosenbaum at the pro bono law firm Public Counsel.

"We shouldn't have to be filing lawsuits to establish a right to read," Rosenbaum said.

The plaintiffs included current or former students and educators at La Salle Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles; Van Buren Elementary School in Stockton; and the charter school Children of Promise Preparatory Academy in Inglewood. La Salle and Van Buren will be among the schools that receive funding, Rosenbaum said, but not all the recipient schools have been identified.

"We know that literacy is the foundation for all learning, and it's an essential part of participating in democracy. People who can't read and write are often uninformed, are more easily manipulated and less likely to vote," said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. This settlement is "just a step, and I think we shouldn't exaggerate how big a step."

A Los Angeles Times analysis of the 75 lowest-performing schools on the state's English language arts test, based on California's Common Core standards, illustrates the depth of the reading problem. Seven out of 10 third-graders in these schools did not meet the standards, according to state data from 2018 and 2019. The schools have about double the English learners of other elementary schools, and more than 90% of students at those schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch -- a poverty indicator.


The schools with the lowest test scores also tend to enroll higher percentages of homeless students and foster students, Noguera said.

The settlement money to improve learning will exclude hundreds of elementary schools whose students are also struggling to meet reading standards.

In more than 500 of the state's approximately 6,000 elementary schools, the majority of third-grade students scored Level 1 -- the lowest -- in English tests, according to the Times analysis. About 80% of the schools' population are black and Latino, higher than the state average of 60%.

The scenario is also troubling in the fourth grade, with California students lagging behind the national averages in reading on the 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress, a standardized test taken across the country.


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