California has yet to pay even half of the $800 million in Emergency Funds that it promised schools in a lawsuit settlement eight years ago, leaving tens of thousands of students to continue to attend schools in decrepit buildings with severe maintenance problems. In 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations filed a class-action suit, Williams v. State, on behalf of students attending substandard schools that allegedly had unhealthy facilities, a shortage of qualified teachers, missing libraries, a lack of instructional materials, and overcrowded schools.
Plaintiffs argued that sending students to schools in “slum conditions,” with inadequate and unsafe facilities, amounted to a deprivation of basic educational opportunities. After his predecessor spent four years and nearly $20 million in legal fees fighting the lawsuit, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed in 2004 to settle the case by establishing an Emergency Repair Program, instituting a complaint process for inadequate instructional materials, teacher vacancies, and emergency facilities problems, and taking other steps to improve conditions in the state’s lowest-performing schools.
In the first years following the settlement, few districts applied for the funds because they functioned as reimbursements, meaning districts needed to pay for projects up front first. But after a 2007 amendment to state law turned the fund into a grant, hundreds of districts applied for the program and the allocation board eventually stopped accepting applications in 2010.
Despite the high demand for repairs and the agreement to allocate at least $100 million every year starting in 2005, the fund has dwindled, and after paying out $338 million, the legislature amended state law to avoid the annual payments for the past four years. Officials have also deferred spending on maintenance to address other school needs, such as teacher lay-offs or increased class sizes. Brooks Allen, the ACLU attorney overseeing the settlement’s implementation, explained that it is difficult to convince people to pay attention to the problem of poor building conditions, noting it “really is very hard to capture the attention” of the public.
The state’s failure to live up to the promises of Williams has left more than 700 schools still waiting for funds to fix broken toilets, infestation, battered walls, and clogged sewer lines. The director of maintenance and operations for Moreno Valley Unified School District, a district owed $26 million for repairs, expressed his frustration at the state’s lack of commitment to the settlement agreement: “I think the title says enough, doesn’t it? Emergency Repair Program. Should it take four years to fund an emergency?”
There are currently two new adequacy cases pending in California – Robles-Wong, et al. v. State of California and Campaign for Quality Education v. State of California – that seek to ensure sufficient funding for all educational needs. The Alameda County Superior Court has dismissed both complaints, but the cases have recently been combined and the plaintiffs have filed an appeal to the dismissal ruling.