By Carolyn Jones for CalMatters
California schools will have to spend $2 billion of their remaining Covid relief funds on tutoring and other measures to help high-needs students recover from learning loss, according to a legal settlement announced this week.
The agreement, reached in Alameda County Superior Court, was between the state and a group of families in Oakland and Los Angeles who said their children fell calamitously behind during remote learning. Public Counsel, a nonprofit advocacy law firm, and Morrison Foerster represented the plaintiffs.
“This should have an enormous impact for students across California,” said Amanda Mangaser Savage, an attorney at Public Counsel who worked on the case. “It truly will make California’s education system more equitable for students who’ve been left behind.”
The case stems from the early days of the Covid pandemic, when nearly every school in California closed for in-person learning and students attended school virtually from home. But many low-income families lacked the technology to access online classes, or said that classes were unstructured and inconsistent. One of the plaintiffs, Kelly R., who lives in South Los Angeles, said, “Between March and June of 2020, neither of my children learned anything in school.”
Test scores from that period confirm that low-income students and students of color fared worse during the pandemic than their peers. From 2019 to 2022, Black students’ scores plunged about 10 points in English language arts and nearly 20 points in math. Latino students also saw steep declines: 12 points in English language arts and 21 points in math. Nationwide, students in all groups in grades 3 through 8 lost an average of half a grade level in math and a third of a grade level in reading, according to a report released this week by researchers at Stanford and Harvard.
The same report found that although students in most groups are now beginning to catch up from learning loss, progress for low-income students has been slow. In California, low-income students scored 81 points below the state standard in math last year — compared to 49 points below for all students. In English language arts, low-income students were 43 points below the standard, compared to 14 points below for all students.
“This proposal includes changes that the administration believes are appropriate at this stage coming out of the pandemic to focus … on the students who were most impacted and continue to need support,” said Elizabeth Sanders, director of communications for the California Department of Education. “Proposing these changes also allowed the state to resolve the (case), and we appreciate the collaborative approach and the insights that plaintiffs offered that informed this proposal. We look forward to engaging with the Legislature and stakeholders over the coming weeks and months to advance this proposal and focus learning recovery dollars on serving the students with the greatest needs.”
Targeted tutoring and other services
As part of the settlement, schools will have to use their unspent Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grant funds to hire tutors, add instructional time or take other steps to help the most-behind students catch up. The state will have to conduct an assessment to decide which students will receive help, and what specific help they’ll receive.
The settlement also allows schools to contract with community groups to help provide extra services. That could include after-school or summer programs, as long as they use proven methods to improve students’ academic achievement, Mangaser Savage said.
Oakland REACH, a parent-led nonprofit, was involved in the lawsuit and is cited as a good example of a successful school-community partnership. Founded in 2020, Oakland REACH trains parents and grandparents to tutor students, especially in literacy, and advocate for their children in public schools. A recent report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education found that Oakland REACH had a positive impact and would be even more effective if it expanded.
Lakisha Young, the group’s founder, said the settlement should bolster groups like hers in other districts around the state.
“This $2 billion-plus settlement is a history-making win, but money can’t solve anything if we don’t put it to good use,” Young said in a statement. “We all must advocate for these funds to be used for solutions that put parents and caregivers in the driver’s seat and are proven to get kids reading. REACH already has built those solutions. … This is the kind of winning partnership every district needs to be doing.”
Researchers at UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools praised the settlement, saying it will narrow the achievement gap between Black, Latino and low-income students and their peers.
“Black and Brown students in California and across the nation have long been plagued by deeply unfair and persistent inequities in our system of public education,” said UCLA education professor Tyrone Howard. “Adding COVID-19 to the mix was like pouring gasoline on an already dangerous fire, accelerating inequities and damaging student learning.”
“The settlement in (this) case is an important step in the right direction of addressing decades-long disparities that Black, Brown and poor students have faced in this state. There is still tremendous work to do to eliminate racial disparities in educational opportunities that became ever greater during the pandemic.”
The settlement hinges on the state passing legislation to change the requirements of the Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grant, a $7.5 billion program intended to help students rebound from learning loss. The state is expected to pass the legislation this year, and the settlement will go into effect afterward, Mangaser Savage said.
Another part of the settlement provides a simpler way for members of the public to challenge the way schools and districts use the money. Currently, parents and students must use a “Uniform Complaint Procedure,” which can be cumbersome. The new procedure, which hasn’t yet been developed, will allow any member of the public to file a complaint, which should add more accountability to the way schools are addressing the needs of students, Mangaser Savage said.