The fight for social justice, many believe, begins and ends in schools. On August 22, an influential group of academic experts, community organizers, teachers, and administrators convened at the Liberty Hill offices to discuss the current state and landscape of education in Los Angeles. I had the privilege to attend this special event and witness first-hand reports from key leaders and changemakers on the frontlines of education reform.
Professor John Rogers of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA) began the convening with a history of the U.S. education system in the 20th century. Central to his discussion was the reality that the state of education it is inextricably tethered to the nation’s economy.
With the slow death of New Deal liberalism beginning the 1970s and 1980s and the increased corporatization of the economy since, education has suffered like no other national institution. As a result, many education advocates and legislators have opted for more privatization of schools, much to the detriment of the public good.
California’s educational system especially felt this economic shift. During the 1950s and 1960s, California had one of the best school systems in the country. Today, the state is among the lowest in public school funding. California also consistently ranks last or second to last in terms of ratio of teachers/administrators to students.
Given the link between education and economics, attacking administrators and/or teachers for the problems of schools through programs such as No Child Left Behind and other philanthro-capitalist based strategies is misguided and flawed, suggests former LAUSD School Board member and Assembly member Jackie Goldberg. Accountability should not be dismissed, of course, but the “blame game” should not run amuck as it so clearly is at the present time. Instead, she contends, we need an overhaul in the state and federal tax structures towards a more equitable system. However, she warns that such a shift would necessitate a simultaneous legislative change in the two-thirds voting rule for taxes in the State of California, which mandates a two-thirds majority for passing tax revenue increases. That’s why the need to leverage campaigns such as California Calls/ReFund California for education funding is more urgent now than ever.
While the current charter school movement has swept through Los Angeles, many experts and activists agree that charter schools, in numerous ways, exacerbate student inequality despite their intention to minimize administration bureaucracy. More importantly, the increased decentralization of governance of schools has unfortunately resulted in the fragmentation of education activism. Yet, despite this relatively recent trend, many groups implement local campaigns through coalitions to improve education one school at a time.
For example, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE)'s efforts to organize members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles and SEIU 99 with parents and students to improve accountability at the Accelerated School in South Los Angeles proved that shared collaboration of all stakeholders in the larger community is not only needed but can be accomplished. Likewise, InnerCity Struggle’s campaign to reform schools in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles as well as Californians for Justice’s work in education in Long Beach are other examples that highlight the need for and successes of widespread grassroots community organizing despite a decentralized power structure.
A vital issue that participants discussed and urged more attention to was the alarming rate of incarceration among youth of color and its many roots in the current public school system. The Los Angeles School Police Department, for example, is largest in the nation with a $40-50 million budget. With its zero tolerance policy, many students are raised in a police-state environment and are prone to fall into the school-to-prison pipeline. Organizations including Community Asset Development Re-Defining Education (CADRE) and the Labor Community Strategy Center prioritize their education agenda around this issue. They organize stakeholders to advocate for more positive and productive alternatives to school suspensions and punitive discipline such as truancy and tardy ticketing. Likewise, the Youth Justice Coalition, understanding the negative impact of gang criminalization on all students, mobilizes communities in South Los Angeles to campaign to reform current legislation and enforcement of gang injunctions. Finally, strategies such as Liberty Hill’s collaborative initiative, Brothers Sons Selves, have brought attention to the increasingly targeted criminalization of young males of color and recently we have seen this issue on the legislative agenda among policy makers in the state of California.
Education is more important for social mobility today than ever in this global economy. Yet disinvestment, decentralization, and criminalization of youth seem to be the order of the day. While grassroots efforts from organizations that convened at Liberty Hill seem humble in comparison to the immense problems within the educational system, they are nonetheless important steps in the fight for quality education for all students in Los Angeles.