student writing STOCK
CNN  — 

A handful of students, teachers, advocacy groups and parents sued the State of California two years ago, alleging the state deprived students from disadvantaged communities the opportunity to learn basic reading and writing skills.

On Thursday, a judge approved a settlement that says the state has to pay $53 million to improve literacy across schools statewide.

The financial terms of the settlement say the largest portion of the money, $50 million, will go towards helping 75 low-performing elementary schools, so they can develop and implement customized three-year literacy action plans.

The remaining $3 million from the settlement will be used for a literacy expert to help develop the state’s literacy action plan and identify where training is needed.

Mark Rosenbaum, directing attorney at Public Counsel, which filed the suit, said in a statement: “The right to read is not just the cornerstone of education, it is the cornerstone of our democracy. Without it, we continue to build a future on the illusion that the haves compete on the same terms with the have nots.

“This revolutionary settlement, coming nearly 70 long years after Brown v. Board, does not end that struggle, but it invigorates it with the power of children and their communities who insist on the equal opportunity to tell their stories and remake California in the images of all.”

Vicky Waters, press secretary with the Office of Governor, told CNN in a statement: “California is committed to closing opportunity gaps by directing extra support and resources to school districts and schools that serve students who need extra help. This work started with the Local Control Funding Formula and continues this year with Governor (Gavin) Newsom’s proposed $600 million investment in Opportunity Grants and wrap-around services for low-performing, high-poverty schools.”

‘California is bringing down the nation’

The lawsuit was filed in December 2017 in state court in Los Angeles.

“When it comes to literacy and basic education, California is bringing down the nation,” the complaint said.

Currently 45 million Americans are functionally illiterate and cannot read above a fifth-grade level, according to the Literacy Project Foundation. Only 25% of students in California school systems are able to perform basic reading skills and about one-third of fourth-graders reach the proficient reading level.

The literacy proficiency of the students mentioned in the complaint varies, with most performing in the bottom 5% of their grade, and others reading several grades below their actual grade and failing state performance tests.

“On measures of literacy and basic education, in the 200 largest school districts in the country, California has 11 of the lowest performing 26 districts, including three among the lowest performing 10 districts,” according to the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, the writing of Ella T., a second-grade student who was the first plaintiff named in the suit, showed many “literacy deficits,” but the state mandated that she “should be able to ‘introduce a topic,’ ‘use facts and definitions to develop points,’ and ‘use linking words (e.g., because, and, also).’”

But in a sample of her writing shown below, basic words are misspelled and she was unable to form a complete sentence.

An example of a second grader's writing proficiency level at a California school

Former teacher laments the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’

David Moch, a former teacher at La Salle Elementary School and one of the plantiffs in the case, said in a press conference that a lack of funding, support and the absence of “culturally relevant material” prevented him from teaching his students the reading and writing skills they needed.

“I taught for over 20 years in a community with a high rate of foster care, a large low-income population and a high crime rate, and yet I know that my students while both brilliant and capable, were not always able to live up to their full potential because they were often stifled by the lack of adequate literacy education,” he said.

The students who get in the most trouble at school typically were the ones who needed the most literacy help, Moch said.

“Yet when the resources are not there to provide that literacy support, it contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline and reinforces the stigma and negative stereotypes about the youth in my community,” he said.

‘The kids are counting on us’

The state acknowledged that there was a need to implement a state literacy plan, according to the group’s complaint from 2017. However, the plaintiffs said the state had not “taken sufficient steps” to make sure that literacy education was available to all children.

“As a result, the state continues to allow children from disadvantaged communities to attend schools that are unable to provide them an opportunity to obtain basic literacy,” the complaint said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner told CNN in a statement that the settlement is a step in the right direction, but it’s a small one.

“There is talent in every seat in every classroom in every one of the 1,386 schools in Los Angeles Unified,” he said. “But there is not always opportunity. We’ve work to do, and the kids are counting on us.”

Stephanie Becker contributed to this report.