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Archdiocese sues public school district over Title I funds for students

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is suing the Los Angeles Unified School District over millions of dollars in federal funds that the public school district is legally required to share with Catholic and other private schools for assisting low-income, academically struggling students with reading, math and counseling.

Attorneys for the archdiocese filed the lawsuit in the Superior Court of California Dec. 16, nearly six months after the California Department of Education issued a 58-page “investigation report” that said the school district had committed “egregious” actions in withholding Title I federal funds from scores of Catholic schools.

The state gave the Los Angeles Unified School District 60 days to begin “timely and meaningful consultation” with the archdiocese and to rectify any errors in calculating student need. The lawsuit said the school district has taken no such action.

A statement from the archdiocese said the district’s inaction “continues to leave thousands of students in need without the Title I services they are legally entitled to under the federal program, which mandates assistance to low-income and academically struggling children regardless of whether they attend public, private or religious schools, particularly during a pandemic.”

The archdiocese is seeking financial damages, but did not specify the amount. It asked the court to compel representatives of the school district to engage in “timely and meaningful consultation” with archdiocesan representatives and to “properly calculate” the number of low-income students eligible for Title I assistance.

It also asked for a declaration that the district’s “policies, procedures and conduct” violate the equal protection and due process rights of the archdiocese and the rights of children attending the archdiocese’s schools.

By long-standing federal law, Title I funds are to be distributed equitably among all low-income students, regardless of whether they attend public, private or religious schools. Public schools usually act as the agent for distributing a proportional share to nonpublic schools, and federal law stipulates the consultation required in this process.

According to the archdiocese, beginning in 2019 the Los Angeles Unified School District arbitrarily, and without meaningful consultation, reduced the number of Catholic schools eligible for Title I funding from more than 100 to 17.

The lawsuit stated the public school district “has openly and consistently acted to prevent federally funded services from reaching eligible, lower-income ADLA (Archdiocese of Los Angeles) students, and has been indeed quite frank about its understanding of federal education programs as a zero-sum game and about its intent to increase its own share of federal education monies by artificially reducing ADLA schools’ share of services funded by such monies.”

Catholic schools cut from Title I include those in some of the nation’s most poverty-plagued urban areas, such as Watts and East Los Angeles. The funds had traditionally paid special teachers who provided struggling, low-income students with extra assistance in subjects such as math and English, and with counseling for academic difficulties.

The loss of those teachers and counselors “has prevented those students from having the supplemental learning that they need in order to maintain grade-level performance, and also to deal with the remedies necessary to close the gap on any learning losses they experienced due to the pandemic,” said Paul Escala, senior director and superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.

“Regardless of who serves poor kids, they have rights under the law,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Unified School District reiterated a response issued when the California Department of Education ruled against the district in July: “Los Angeles Unified strives to comply with all applicable rules and regulations regarding the provision of Title I equitable services.”

The suit said that, after seeking a resolution through administrative channels for four years, the archdiocese filed suit because “ADLA and the students that attend its schools … will suffer irreparable harm if required to wait up to a year or more on top of the several years they had to wait for” the California Department of Education’s decision.

“Low-income students who grow up, year after year, without the Title I services to which they are entitled under law, cannot be made whole four or more years later by extra Title I services; by that point the damage done by this unlawful withholding of necessary services will have become permanent,” the suit added.

In a letter to school administrators, Escala said the suit was filed after long deliberation.

“We are clear eyed about the realities of litigation and realize that a speedy resolution is not assured, in fact, this may necessitate more time. However, the action we are taking is important – advocacy for our students must be represented in a firm and public manner,” he wrote.

The litigation will benefit archdiocesan schools outside the territory of the Los Angeles Unified School District, he continued.

“The ability of Catholic schools in our archdiocese and other dioceses across the state to access federal resources to support high-need students is at stake here,” Escala said, adding that the Los Angeles public school district “is not the only” school district in the area covered by the archdiocese “that has sought to undermine our efforts to serve the poor and struggling students through federally funded programs.”

Rodgers writes for Angelus, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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