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Sadly, Dorsey High is far from being the worst high school in California.
Nor are high school students the only ones who are being short-changed.
Over the past 30 years, California's public schools have, on average,
fallen from among the best in the country to among the worst. But
however bad things are on average, they are far worse for low-income
students and students of color. Whether measured by access to trained
teachers, the availability of textbooks or overcrowding in classrooms,
low-income students of color are generally three to 10 times more
likely to be relegated to seriously substandard schools. Ninety-eight
percent of the students at Dorsey are African American or Latina/o.
Fifty years ago this May, the United States Supreme Court promised
in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that this country
would offer a public education "available to all on equal terms."
At Dorsey, as well as at many other public schools, the words of
that promise seem distant and empty.
AS STARK AS THIS PICTURE SEEMS, there is reason
for hope, some of it taking shape at UCLA. Four years ago, a coalition
of civil-rights lawyers sued the State of California on behalf of
the 1 million children who are trapped in the worst public schools.
The plaintiffs in Williams v. State of California want the state
to establish minimal standards for the essential tools for learning,
and then to ensure that school districts and individual schools
deliver those necessities to all students. They demand a system
in which school districts and state officials are held accountable
for the opportunities for teaching and learning in each public school.
The students in my public-policy advocacy class helped with the
initial research in that case. The lead expert for the plaintiffs
is Jeannie Oakes Ph.D. '80, UCLA's Presidential Professor in Educational
Equity. Many UCLA law students and recent graduates of our Program
in Public Interest Law and Policy have volunteered to help the civil
rights lawyers. I've provided a hand myself. The help was needed
— the response to the lawsuit of then-Gov. Gray Davis was
to drag out the litigation, with the state spending a reported $18
million on the most expensive private lawyers.