California schools are being stretched to their financial limits during the toughest economic time of our generation. The Department of Education reports that 174 school districts, a staggering 38 percent increase over the last seven months, are now in serious financial trouble.

To cope with this crisis, tens of thousands of teachers won’t be heading back to school. Families are required to do much more – from paying for schoolbooks and supplies to accepting larger workloads and class sizes – and getting less – fewer extracurricular activities, teachers, and noncore classes such as music and art. All of these cutbacks are well known and well documented, but there are other costs our schools are forced to pay regardless of the economic climate: the escalating costs of litigation.

Not only are our schools suffering in the midst of a budget crisis, but education is now burdened by a civil liability system that grows steadily worse. According to the Institute for Legal Reform’s Lawsuit Climate 2010 report, California slipped seven rankings this year, and now qualifies as one of the 10 worst state legal climates in the nation. Our school system is struggling. California is next to last in eighth-grade reading and 45th in fourth-grade math. Forty percent of California State University freshmen are unprepared for college-level math and nearly 50 percent for college-level English. Yet litigation runs unchecked. Each year, California’s schools are subject to countless lawsuits.

A recent report by my group, California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, titled “Lessons in Lawsuits: The Impact of Litigation on California Schools,” found that Los Angeles Unified School District over the last three years spent almost $45 million in litigation costs. Last year alone, L.A. Unified’s litigation costs exceeded $13 million – an amount that could have paid the salaries of more than 200 teachers. Among 12 state school districts, litigation costs over three fiscal years exceeded $98.7 million, or enough funding to have provided 246,762 desktop computer packages.

Litigation costs are not measured in dollars alone, but also in lost quality and efficiency. Studies have shown that our teachers are increasingly afraid to teach, our administrators afraid to do their jobs, and many education policies and practices are altered because of the threat of litigation.

Certainly not all lawsuits are without merit. However, a great many are driven by personal injury lawyers and greedy plaintiffs seeking to get rich off the perceived “deep pockets” of our public schools without regard for the impact on our communities. Our schools are now compelled to defend themselves against lawsuits for enforcing dress codes, cutting a student from an athletic team or punishing a student caught cheating. From parents, teachers and administrators to the taxpayers who foot the bill for education, everyone is cheated, but no one more so than our students who have their education compromised because of diminishing resources.

Predatory lawsuits

School districts are trying to mitigate predatory lawsuits and defend themselves against excessive litigation. The result? Common schoolyard games such as tag are prohibited in some places for fear of liability. Play structures are modified with the goal of avoiding litigation rather than providing children a fun place to play. The number of obese children grows, while schools are forced to cut back on physical activities.

Some schools are adding liability insurance costs to their budgets, developing risk management systems and hiring outside counsel. Beyond these steps, however, there is not much more schools can do to fight abusive lawsuits. They are stretched thin as it is, and their focus should be on the children they teach, not courtroom maneuvering.

The burden of lawsuit abuse, of course, goes far beyond our schools. As a businessman and chairman of CALA, I am fully aware of the significance that lawsuits have throughout our economy, government and businesses. This summer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced that small businesses across our nation paid liability costs exceeding $100 billion in 2008. California local and state governments pay very large liability costs each year.

But there is something especially troubling about predatory lawsuits filed against our teachers and students. Our children already bear the brunt of the effects of funding cuts to education. Let’s not make matters worse by adding attorney fees and cash payouts to the budgets of the districts charged with educating them. Let’s do whatever we can to make sure every penny of our education dollars actually benefits our students.

We as a community and state need to enact our own change, promote personal responsibility and support legal reform. We owe it to our children and our fellow taxpayers to take responsibility for our actions. We’re teaching kids a poor lesson when our initial reaction to any perceived wrong is filing a lawsuit – especially one whose ultimate price is paid by those very children.

David Houston is chairman of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a nonpartisan grassroots organization in Sacramento that’s made up of concerned citizens and businesses that fight against lawsuit abuse in California.

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