"Concentrating On Little Big Things"

The following is a reprint of an op ed piece in the Los Angeles Daily Journal written by Public Counsel's President and CEO, Hernán D. Vera, dated December 1, 2010.

Efrain Gomez is a popular 12 year old with a big smile, a love of baseball cards, and two hardworking parents. He also reads at the first grade level. Despite repeated demands by his mother, his low-performing middle school in South Los Angeles has done nothing to provide Efrain with the legally mandated special education services he needs to catch up.

Efrain is a typical client of the Education Unit at Public Counsel. The Education Unit's four staff attorneys and three social workers provide intensive legal representation to low-income children who have been denied the special educational services that they need to succeed and thrive. The unit's staff advocates for students at every stage of the process, from attending "Individualized Education Plan" meetings with their clients' teachers and principals, to negotiating with district officials for greater services, to preparing cases for due process hearings when a negotiated resolution cannot be reached. The social workers work closely with the families and track every conceivable metric including test scores, attendance, days tardy, class and school placement, tutoring hours, and many other factors. The results to date have been incredibly encouraging, and there is no greater reward for all involved than seeing a client graduate from high school and enroll in college.

But the work of Public Counsel's Education Unit is not done in isolation. A core component of the unit's work is to recruit, train, and support pro bono attorneys to represent students in these matters.  Attorneys from law firms big and small have signed up to help. Laura Faer, directing attorney of Public Counsel's Children's Rights Project (which includes the Education Unit), explains the model: "These children are our children, and the law requires that they receive an appropriate education to participate meaningfully in society. Without volunteer attorneys to advocate on behalf of these students, our clients fall further and further behind, with all the attendant consequences that we all know about. We just can't serve enough kids without them." Pro bono attorneys not only receive intensive training and support in a highly specialized area of the law, they also get to experience firsthand the real life challenges of students, families, and teachers in the educational system.

Public Counsel is no stranger to the pro bono model. As the nation's largest pro bono law office, it provides over $87 million in free legal services to low-income clients in a wide variety of civil matters, including children's rights, immigration, consumer law, homelessness prevention and housing, child care, veterans' assistance, and transactional support to nonprofits and small businesses. Each year, Public Counsel's 49 in-house staff attorneys work with over 4,000 pro bono attorneys and law students to provide services to nearly 30,000 individuals and entities. 

However, no matter how many volunteers step up to help, education reform cannot be accomplished solely through one-on-one services to individual students. For this reason, Public Counsel has created a pro bono model that enlists law firms to co-counsel on major impact litigation aimed at securing broad, systemic reform of our schools.

Perhaps the most visible example of the success of this model is the national attention created by the litigation in Reed v. State of California. Last year, Public Counsel, together with Morrison & Foerster LLP and the ACLU, filed a class action against the State of California and the Los Angeles Unified School District on behalf of students at three low-performing middle schools. These schools suffered disproportionate layoffs of more than 50 percent and 60 percent of their teachers (many times the district average) as a consequence of the seniority rules ensconced in state law and in the collective bargaining agreement. The court issued a temporary restraining order enjoining further cuts to these schools on constitutional grounds, and the board of the LAUSD recently approved a settlement that, if approved by the court, will create important, district-wide changes to how future layoffs are distributed. Catherine Lhamon, Public Counsel's director of impact litigation, worked closely with a large team of Morrison & Foerster LLP and ACLU attorneys to develop the legal and factual basis for the proposed relief.

Another recent educational impact case made possible through pro bono involves Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's statewide cuts to hundreds of millions of dollars of education-related mental health funding. As a result of the governor's line item veto of this funding, 20,000 students with severe mental health needs (including children with schizophrenia and suicidal ideation) were placed at risk of losing the services that they needed to stay in school and prevent high-level institutionalization. Public Counsel, together Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Disability Rights California, and Mental Health Advocacy Services, filed a class action against the state on October 14. Just before the hearing on the TRO, the California Department of Education agreed to allocate $76 million in additional funding to ensure the temporary continuation of these services. John Sharer of Gibson Dunn, who has co-counseled several class actions with Public Counsel, stated, "We are sure that many of the legislators who are disability rights champions will be working toward a fix of this unacceptable situation." 

Whether through direct services or through class actions, pro bono has a critical role to play in ensuring that our educational system gives all children a fighting chance to fulfill their potential.  There is no shortage of opportunities to get involved and make a real difference in the life of a child struggling in school, or to take on a school district that is not following the law. Please consider joining Public Counsel in this important struggle.