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 not.

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 expense.

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 students.

Anything less violates the California Constitution, the suit says.


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 information.

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 every child.

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.


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
trained teachers.

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 requirement.

"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
report flawed.

"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."


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 accountability.

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