Editor’s note: A law originally designed to create equity among students needs to be updated for our times. This year’s pandemic is just the latest event to lay bare what the author calls “glaring and gaping inequities”; he argues that to keep the spirit of the Williams case, it must evolve.
In 2000, the lawsuit Williams v. State of California was brought to U.S. Superior Court in San Francisco.
In it, families claimed that school districts were not providing the same resources to lower-income families as more affluent schools. Four years later, the families won a settlement agreement, and Gov. Schwarzenegger signed several bills into law. Among other things, a budget of $25 million exists annually so that every California school is proven to be equitable, lower-performing schools like mine especially.
Fast forward to 2020.
Once a year, my school is visited in early fall by a team of people from the Williams case investigation committee. I must place all four adopted textbooks on top of each student’s desk, as investigators count them to determine that each child has all the resources they need. They inspect a cabinet or two, to ensure the school is safe from things like Glade plug-ins and hand sanitizer (apologies to my staff in ’13). And at some point, my district shows that my credentials and certificates are up-to-date to ensure that I am a quality teacher. Checking their tally sheet, investigators move on to another Title I school.
And that’s it.
The function of the Williams settlement was to provide parents assurances that they can expect equity in all classrooms. Spending $25 million to check off books and hazardous materials isn’t just outdated, it’s embarrassing.
Putting books in the desks of my bright, hardworking, and simply amazing children is literally the least we can do to provide equity in schools. If the COVID pandemic doesn’t show us the glaring and gaping inequities that exist in my Title I school, then I don’t know what can.
We can do better. The Williams case should be revisited, updated and amended. Here’s how we start.
Amendment #1: Working technology, not whatever parents can afford
Every student in California should have access to a working computer for school and home usage, as well as high-speed internet. It struck me in March to learn that 87 percent of my school population did not have a working computer to use at home. Nearly as many did not have reliable Wi-Fi. I had students skateboarding with their tablets and phones to sit in the dirt outside the school chain link fence just so they could join in my class lesson!
It is unacceptable that computers, which comprise a fraction of our school budgets, should be sitting in carts instead of in the hands of students who need them. Most curricula are now online, and teachers across the nation used software platforms to accept student work even before COVID-19.
Amendment #2: Health, not sometime health services
Every student and their family in California should have access to a nurse, a counselor, and a school psychologist any day of the week. My school is funded for a nurse three days a week, a counselor two days a week, and a school psychologist two days a week. These personnel travel between as many as three and four schools each week, despite the 600 students we serve at our site alone. As a parent and teacher at my school site, misusing hand sanitizer is the least of my worries when my child has a 40 percent chance of a nurse being on site for any given emergency.
Amendment #3: Real curriculum, not dusty books on desks
Every student in California should have access to arts, theater, health, music and PE programs, not just books. Parents in any neighborhood expect the whole child educated, and the fact that reading and math scores are lower in one area should not exclude a child in any area from having access to a full range of curriculum. After checks are put on clipboards about textbooks, investigators should also look at our agendas. They should ask how many minutes administrators are requiring for reading and math instruction. If we can’t make time for arts education — notoriously neglected in low socioeconomic neighborhoods — then it might be important to make a note of that next to the column about whether or not a history book is on a desk.
Amendment #4: Parental support, not obstacle courses
Every parent of a student in California should be able to access student grades, contact teachers and administrators, and find classroom information in an organized way that doesn’t change year to year. It is ridiculous to me as a father and an educator that any parent of a student in California should be expected to relearn a new system for every teacher for each and every one of their children.
It’s time to revisit the Williams case — because it’s time to rethink equity and has been for as long as I’ve put textbooks on desks. Let’s make the Williams case what it deserves to be for all kids in California, my daughter, and anyone’s child.
Thomas Courtney, San Diego Education Association, is a 20-year educator at Chollas Mead Elementary in San Diego, where his daughter Onora is a fourth grader. He is a three-time Teacher of the Year, and advocates for students in low socioeconomic neighborhoods as a senior fellow with Teach Plus California.
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