Williams v California – A Step Towards Equity

Description of Williams Court Ruling and Settlement

                The plaintiff in Williams v. California was Eliezer Williams, a dissatisfied middle school student from San Francisco.  Significantly, the case was heard on May 17, 2000, the 46th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.  Williams and her father, along with Public Advocates, American Civil Liberties Union, Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Morrison & Foerster LLP, Williams sought to equalize educational opportunities for all public school students in California (Rodriguez and Jongco, 2007).

Williams v. California built on the precedent set by Serrano v. Priest, (1970) which established education as a fundamental right in California.   The Williams suit used Serrano’s equal protection ruling to argue that public school students must be guaranteed a minimum level of educational necessities.  The Williams case argued that the state of California denied thousands of students their fundamental right to an education under the constitution by failing to provide them with basic resources (Chung, 2013).  After four years of litigation, on August 13, 2004, the Williams Settlement led to standards for the minimum level of educational necessities, created an accountability system and committed one billion in funding to implement the program (Rodriguez and Jongco, 2007).  The Williams Settlement defined “educational necessities” to mean adequate textbooks and instructional materials, clean, safe, and functional school facilities, and qualified teachers.

Textbooks and Instructional Materials

The legal definition of adequate instructional materials under the Williams Settlement is “each pupil, including English Learners, has a standards-aligned textbook or instructional materials, or both, to use in class and to take home” (Chung, 2013, p.15).   Since 2004, various amendments to the education code, along with senate and assembly bills, have addressed current educational needs and economic realities without losing the essence of the Williams Settlement.  For example, in 2009, the Education Code 60119(c)(1) was amended to specify that all students in the same grade or course within a school district receive instructional materials from the same adoption.  Senate Bill 509 in 2011 allowed local education agencies (LEA) to purchase instructional materials for their neediest schools without purchasing materials for their higher performing schools.  Assembly Bill 1246 in 2012 defined “standards-alignment” to mean either the state standards or the California Common Core Standards (Chung, 2013).  Because of the Williams Settlement, textbook insufficiencies are known and reported, and funding was provided to help schools buy new books.

School Facilities

                For school facilities, the Williams Settlement created standards for what constitutes “good repair” and “emergency facility needs,” and established an accountability system.  Each school utilizes a standard tool to assess the quality of their facility.  Schools now use the Facilities Inspection Tool (FIT) which replaced the Interim Evaluation Instrument (IEI) in 2007 (Chung, 2013).   If a school has any condition that prevents it from being safe, clean and functional, it must be documented on the FIT.  Low-performing schools were also eligible for emergency repair funds.

Qualified Teachers

                The Williams Settlement created clear standards for “teacher misassignments” and “teacher vacancies.”  A teacher misassignment is when a teacher lacks the subject matter, English Learner (EL) or other authorization required for the assignment.  A vacancy is when a class has no single, designated full-time teacher, and is taught by a series of substitutes (Chung, 2013).

Accountability System and Funding

The Williams Settlement established an accountability system where districts perform an annual self-evaluation regarding instructional materials, school facilities, and qualified teachers.  Schools are required to publish an annual School Accountability Report Card (SARC) and make it available to parents and the public.  The SARC includes data on textbook sufficiency, FIT results, and teacher qualifications.  The Williams Settlement also created a Uniform Complaint Process (UCP) for parents, students, teachers. UCP complaints must be reviewed quarterly by the local and county board of education.  Also, schools ranked in the lowest three deciles on the Academic Performance Index (API) receive annual visits by the county department of education and additional funding from the state for emergency repairs and instructional materials (Chung, 2013).

Relevance of the Williams Settlement on Education

                The Williams Settlement has significantly improved students’ access to the necessities of education.   Data collected on the three Williams components show unequivocal progress.  There have been dramatic decreases in textbook insufficiencies since the settlement.   In 2004, 19% of decile 1-3 schools had textbook deficiencies and by 2013, that percentage had decreased to 4.5%.  Likewise, there have been decreases in emergency facility needs.  In 2004, 13% of decile 1-3 schools had emergency facilities needs and by 2013, that number decreased to 4%.  Finally, regarding teacher quality, the percentage of teacher misassignments in decile 1-3 schools decreased from 29% in 2005 to 13% in 2011, and the number of teacher vacancies decreased from 547 in 2007 to 235 in 2011.  Teacher misassignments, specifically due to lack of English Learner Authorization, decreased from 29% in 2004 to 1.2% in 2011 (Chung, 2013). Due to the accountability measures of the Willaims Settlement, districts now require EL authorization as a requirement of employment.  Clearly, providing an adequate education for all students has substantially improved since the William Settlement.

While providing an adequate education for all students has improved with the Williams Settlement, it remains a work in progress.   The state is now $462 million behind in the minimum funding outlined in Williams for the Emergency Repair Program (ERP) and as of 2010, the state stopped accepting applications for ERP funding.  (Chung, 2013, p. 31). The number of unfunded ERP projects in 2013 total 4,759.  (Chung, 2013, p. 32).   Also, teacher misassignments, while decreasing, are still greater in decile 1-3 schools than higher-performing schools.

Moving from Adequacy to Equity

                As California moves ahead with new educational initiatives, such as common core standards, issues of adequacy will need to be continuously addressed.   With the implementation of common core state standards, new materials will need to be purchased and distributed in alignment with the Williams settlement.  The definition of instructional materials has evolved with the greater use of digital materials, and districts will need to grapple with providing equal access at school and home to devices and Internet connectivity, rather than textbooks.   To provide equal access to devices, districts have created a variety of solutions such as Bring Your Own Device, Rent-to-Purchase and One-to-One programs.   To provide equal access to content, districts sometimes use digital materials not requiring Internet connectivity or provide universal Internet access, such as the Riverside Unified School District (“Digital Instructional Materials,” 2014).  Regardless of the solution, the standard set by Williams is that districts must ensure that all students can access the electronic device and content both at home and school without requiring students to purchase to provide the device or Internet service (“Digital Instructional Materials,” 2014).

LCFF, enacted in 2013, replaces the old state finance system with a more equitable system that provides more funds to districts with high need students, such as English Language Learners, foster youth, homeless and low-income students. Whereas the Williams Settlement focuses on ensuring a minimum level of adequate education for all students, LCFF addresses equity. Students with more needs receive more funds.  Still, the influence of the Williams Settlement is apparent in the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) that requires eight state priorities, the first of which is the delivery of basic educational necessities for equal educational opportunities (Chung, 2013).

During the past 12 years, the Williams settlement and has shown that what gets monitored gets addressed.  Because of Williams v California, students’ access to adequate instructional materials, safe facilities and qualified teachers has substantially improved.  The accountability systems put into place by the Williams Settlement have created a culture of collaboration and urgency to ensure all students have the necessities of public education.  The next step for California is to use LCFF to move from adequacy to equity for all students.



Brimley,V., Verstegen,D. and Garfield,R. (2012). Financing education in a climate of change. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.

Chung, S. (2013, September 29). Williams v. California:  Lessons from nine years of implementation.  Retrieved from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California website: https://www.aclusocal.org/cases/williams-v-california/nineyears/

Digital Instructional Materials and the Williams Sufficiency Standard (2014, April 11). Retrieved from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California website:  https://www.aclusocal.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Digital-Materials-Sufficiency-Issue-Brief.pdf

Rodriguez, M. & Jongco, A. (2007, Fall).  Williams v. California: Hope and Confidence for Students and Parents.   Educating for Equity, vol. 14, No.2.  Retrieved from: http://reimaginerpe.org/node/1173


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