State sued over poor students' conditions

2nd June 2000 at 01:00

Jon Marcus reports on legal action that could upset plans for teachers' pay

in California.

CIVIL liberties groups are suing the state of California over what they claim are the appalling conditions endured at school by poor and minority students.

A week after the governor of California proposed using a record budget surplus to increase educational funding, the American Civil Liberties Union has accused the state of providing white students with higher-quality facilities and equipment.

The union wants minority and low-income students in urban districts to get a large enough share of the additional funding to be guaranteed adequate textbooks, qualified teachers and well-maintained schools.

Using part of an unexpected budget surplus, Governor Gray Davis has proposed $4 billion (pound;2.5bn) in new school spending, although the amount spent per student would remain below the national average. The governor's plan includes providing bonuses and loans to attract qualified teachers to low-performing schools.

The lawsuit claims that the state's schools are divided according to a two-class system in which low-income and minority students suffer "terrible slum conditions", including a lack of desks and textbooks and infestations of rats and cockroaches, while white middle- and upper-class children enjoy higher-quality surroundings and equipment.

Some urban schools hav only one textbook for every five pupils, and have to photocopy the pages, while much of the new state funding is earmarked for higher teacher salaries and financial bonuses.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center have also charged that California's formula for distributing billions of dollars for school construction illegally shortchanges urban districts, including Los Angeles.

California is the latest of about 20 states facing legal cases over equity in education; some have already succeeded in forcing governments to increase spending on poor schools. But attorneys said it is likely to take years before children will see any improvement.

The Californian developments come at the same time as a new Harvard University study arguing that American schools are becoming more divided along racial and ethnic lines.

Hispanics are the most segregated minority group, according to the report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard's graduate school of education. Nearly three-quarters of Hispanic students attend schools that are predominantly attended by pupils from minorities. Seventy per cent of black students are in predominantly minority schools, while most whites attend schools that are 80 per cent or more white.

"The rise of segregation is a peril to opportunity in this society," Harvard professor Gary Orfield said.

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