On June 15, 2021, the Alameda County Superior Court made its first ruling in Cayla J. v. State of California, denying a motion for preliminary injunction in a lawsuit alleging that California has failed to offer equal education to low-income students of color during the COVID-19 pandemic. The court declined to mandate prescriptive solutions to inequalities that California’s Legislature is attempting to address already. Courts often defer to the Legislature, preferring not to make policy from the bench.
The lawsuit claims that children have been further left behind academically during the COVID-19 pandemic by disparate access to educational opportunities and digital resources, as some students struggled to obtain the technology they needed to connect and faced other barriers to engaging in remote schooling. The lawsuit also alleges that students have been harmed by schools that fail to meet required minimum instructional times and to provide adequate training and support to teachers.
In the first hearing, plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction that would direct the state to address disparities in remote education, provide mental health and behavioral support for students and teachers, and develop and implement a plan to address learning loss during the pandemic. To receive a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs were required to show that they would suffer irreparable harm unless the injunction is issued.
The court found that plaintiffs had presented evidence that shows some likelihood of prevailing on claims for disparate impact discrimination based on race and for access to a “basically equal” education. However, the court also found that the harm that students may suffer if the injunction is not granted was difficult to measure against the potential harm the state may suffer if the injunction was granted and the court interfered with issues that are the responsibility of the legislative and executive branches.
The court was persuaded that it would be unwise to order the relief that plaintiffs sought on a preliminary injunction. The court found the state is taking steps to address the concerns identified in the complaint, including Assembly Bill 86 (which provided additional state funding as an incentive for schools to offer in-person instruction, supplemental instruction and support for high-need students), use of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, and proposals in the Governor’s May 2021 revision to the proposed budget for 2021–22. The court noted that these efforts may not be adequate to provide a “basically equal” education, but they mitigate the immediate harm alleged by plaintiffs and diminish the need for a preliminary injunction. The Court also stated that it was reluctant to address long-term issues such as disparate educational benefit to certain students with a short-term solution like a preliminary injunction. The court noted it was inclined to set a trial date in the case for May 2022 so that if plaintiffs prevail then any remedy could be put in place for the start of the 2022–23 school year.
The court’s decision is available here.