Public Counsel and Morrison & Foerster Announce Groundbreaking Settlement in California Literacy Lawsuit to Provide Immediate Relief to 75 Low-Performing Schools

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Ella T. v. State of California – the first civil rights action brought under any state constitution to protect students’ right to access to literacy – has settled.

Superior court Judge Rupert Byrdsong today received notice of a wide-ranging settlement in a major education lawsuit brought by students, parents and advocacy groups against the State of California. The lawsuit was the first civil rights action brought under any state constitution to protect students’ right to access to literacy. The ability to read is a foundation for education, which is a right secured by the state constitution. According to a 2012 report prepared by experts engaged by the state, there is an urgent need to address the literacy crisis in California schools, which primarily affects California’s low-income students of color. Under the settlement reached in Ella T. v. State of California, the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond have agreed to provide resources to improve literacy outcomes for the state’s lowest performing schools, adopt a holistic approach to literacy, and provide extra support to the Stockton Unified School District.

“The longest yet most urgent struggle for social justice in America has been for access to literacy,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Directing Attorney at Public Counsel. “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.”

The settlement provides multiple remedies to improve literacy. Key provisions include:

  • $50 million in block grants for 75 low-performing elementary schools to develop and implement customized three-year literacy action plans allowing schools to invest in evidenced-based practices to improve student literacy such as literacy coaches, teacher’s aides, professional development, culturally responsive curriculum, restorative justice, and trauma responsive resources.
  • Adoption of a holistic approach to literacy – recipients of block grants are required to prioritize community engagement, and perform a root-cause analysis that examines the instructional, school climate, and social-emotional factors that led to low student achievement.
  • A shift away from punitive school discipline practices, including the issuance of state guidelines to reduce racially disproportionate discipline, the formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission on exclusionary discipline, and a public event to discuss alternatives to harmful disciplinary practices.
  • $3 million for the creation of a statewide “expert lead on literacy” who will work to strengthen the state’s literacy infrastructure and training opportunities, and assist grant recipients.

“For decades, the State of California has underfunded and neglected schools in Black and Latino communities,” said Maisie Chin, Executive Director of CADRE, an organizational plaintiff. “And while this settlement by itself can’t undo that damage, we are pleased to secure a groundbreaking framework that shines a light on how punitive school environments cause harm to students and push them out of school. For our community members this relationship is indisputable, and we hope to advance a systemic understanding of how access to literacy is directly tied to how schools use exclusionary discipline practices and criminalize low-income students of color.”

The settlement’s $53 million in new funding is included in Governor Newsom’s proposed 2020 budget, and will need to be approved by the state legislature before it goes into effect. Additionally, the settlement calls for Stockton Unified to be added to the state’s Community Engagement Initiative, a program that provides extra support to struggling school districts. State officials will also visit Stockton Unified in early 2020 to meet with parents and students.

“Two years ago, students and parents in Stockton joined this lawsuit to fight for a better education for the next generation of young people,” said Samuel Nuñez, Executive Director of Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, an organizational plaintiff. “With this settlement we are thrilled to secure vital resources for our low-performing schools and to provide relief now. However, we know we have more work to do, as the success of this settlement depends upon the engagement of community members to ensure they are part of the conversations at school sites to identify solutions and enact change. Thankfully, the settlement requires eligible schools to prioritize community engagement, so the structure is in place for us to be successful.”

The complaint was filed on December 5, 2017 in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Public Counsel and Morrison & Foerster on behalf of California students 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, as well as on behalf of their advocates, including former teachers and community organizations CADRE and Fathers & Families of San Joaquin.

As the complaint alleges, under-performing schools throughout California are failing their students. Less than 10 percent of their students are proficient in core subjects like reading. In 2016-17, the school-wide ELA proficiency rates for La Salle, Van Buren, and Children of Promise, respectively, were 4, 6, and 11 percent. To put those figures into context, in 2016-17, only eight children out of the 179 students tested at La Salle Elementary were found to be proficient by state standards.

“This settlement is a tremendous victory for the courageous families and community leaders who demanded that the State of California fulfill its obligation to provide every child the opportunity to learn to read,” said Erik Olson, partner at Morrison & Foerster. “The settlement provides an immediate infusion of resources to California’s hardest hit schools, strengthens the state’s literacy infrastructure and knowledge base, and requires data collection and transparency to inform future efforts. We’re thrilled to be part of this wonderful win for the children of California.”

Settlement and legal documents are available at

Public Counsel is the nation's largest pro bono law firm. Through a pro bono model that leverages the talents and dedication of thousands of attorney and law student volunteers, along with an in-house staff of more than 75 attorneys and social workers, Public Counsel annually assists more than 30,000 families, children, immigrants, veterans, and nonprofit organizations and addresses systemic poverty and civil rights issues through impact litigation and policy advocacy.

Morrison & Foerster is a global firm of exceptional credentials. Our clients include some of the largest financial institutions, investment banks, Fortune 100, and technology and life sciences companies. The Financial Times has named the firm to its list of most innovative law firms in North America every year that it has published its Innovative Lawyers Reports in the region. In the past few years, Chambers USA has honored MoFo’s Privacy and Data Security, Bankruptcy, and IP teams with Firm of the Year awards, the Corporate/M&A team with a client service award, and the firm as a whole as Global USA Firm of the Year. Our lawyers are committed to achieving innovative and business-minded results for our clients, while preserving the differences that make us stronger. The firm also has a long history of commitment to the community through providing pro bono legal services, including litigating for civil rights and civil liberties, improving public education for poor children, advocating for veterans, promoting international human rights, winning asylum for the persecuted, and safeguarding the environment.

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Kristin Loe