MAY 13 - 18, 2005
Grassroots advocates for public schools are raising their voices - and
by ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN
Public education, the favorite whipping boy of the right and of
family-values enthusiasts of all stripes, has had a particularly bad first quarter in
That's the bad news. The good news - specifically, the countervailing news -
is that there is also an increasingly organized network of teachers,
students, parents and other interested parties who are demanding meaningful reforms of public education and, simultaneously, a place at the decision-making table.
Pushed to a breaking point by endless standardized testing, stagnant school
conditions and the hovering Damocles' sword of the No Child Left Behind Act,
groups like the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ), InnerCity Struggle
and Communities for Educational Equity (CEE) are taking the issues to the
politicians - and getting some traction. With the support of school-board member Jose Huizar, InnerCity Struggle and CEE are pushing for the passage of a board resolution that would make the full complement of college-prep courses,
known as A-G, requirements for graduation. The CEJ, along with a statewide organization called Campaign for Quality Education, is working with two state legislators to pass bills that would either delay or reform the controversial high school exit exam in California; passage of the exam is currently required for a diploma. State Senator Gloria Romero's bill, SB 517, would put off the "diploma penalty" until local county offices of education can show that they've
provided adequate resources, including certified teachers and reasonable student-teache ratios, to all students; Assemblywoman Karen Bass' AB 1531 would require school districts to develop more complex methods of student assessment, beyond the exit exam, so that the exam isn't the sole determinant of whether a student receives a diploma or not.
Luis Sanchez, an organizer with East L.A.-based InnerCity Struggle, says
That even though public-education advocates are increasingly fending off attacks,
they must also advance new ideas - now. New campuses are finally getting
built, and he says it's crucial that the curriculum and direction of the
schools be new, too. "We're gaining momentum exactly because of the growth of the 'choice' movement - vouchers, charter schools, privatization," says Sanchez, whose organization counts among its victories approval to build East L.A.'s first
new high school in 80 years. "This is an opportunity to start a movement, a big one. It's so easy to fight against stuff, but you can't just be against something. We need to make our own demands."
This kind of reformer energy is not new; activist groups like the CEJ and
InnerCity Struggle have been in the trenches on a number of issues for a
What is new is that their brand of progressivism is moving incrementally
From the fringe to the center. The most compelling proof of that is the recent
election of officers in United Teachers Los Angeles, the 46,000-member
teacher union known much less for courage than for status quo complacency. Thanks to a progressive caucus within the union called United Action that has been gaining membership and influence the last couple of years, UTLA tossed out four incumbent officers and voted in new ones, a move unprecedented in its
history. Along with the usual pledges to protect and expand teacher wages and benefits, president-elect A.J. Duffy has been vowing to fight for the neediest schools - specifically by fighting No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which
counterintuitively withholds aid from schools it identifies as failing. "It's a horrendous law that's hurting kids," says Duffy, a special-education teacher. "We have inner-city schools with horrendous dropout rates, single families and other problems, which are reflected in test scores, and the feds punish us for that. We're going to fight to do away with NCLB, and we'll fight it with research and information." Duffy admits that the controversial federal legislation has
been a godsend in terms of galvanizing not only activists, but other union members who are far from radical but who have become sufficiently dissatisfied with the state of schools and with various attacks on their profession - notably a paltry 1 percent pay raise offered to teachers this year - to vote for a change in union leadership.
"The UTLA election was a huge, huge victory," says Alex Caputo-Pearl, an
organizer for CEJ, a key component of United Action. "It remains to be seen
what we'll do with it. But there was a perfect storm of problems that the old
leadership wasn't addressing that worked in our favor."