SCLC's Rev. Lee and Mayor Villaraigosa Strike Agreement
From the beginning, the LAUSD Resolution co-authored by Board President Monica Garcia and Board Members Yolie-Flores-Aguilar and Dr. Richard Vladovic, titled "Public School Choice: A New Way at LAUSD", lacked inclusiveness, transparency and equity. Even though this resolution was touted as the transformative vehicle for arresting the status quo of tragic underperformance of Los Angeles public schools by creating an open RFP process for private control of the 50 publicly funded newly constructed schools, the process for this vehicle of transformation was seriously flawed.
The drafting of the resolution came from Board Members that serve predominately Latino communities, and the organizations listed as supporters are Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative, East LA Education Collaborative, Inner City Struggle, The Parent Revolution, Families That Can, Alliance for a Better Community and Southeast Cities and Schools Coalition, all intently purposed to serve the Latino community. The criterion for these organizations supporting this resolution was that they "desire to play a more active role in shaping and expanding the educational options provided in their communities".
As the Governing Board of the Los Angeles Unified School District is "responsible for ensuring that the District provides all students a high quality education", and that the Board "must do everything it can to enhance the educational opportunities provided to students attending district schools", this resolution horribly missed the mark by focusing solely on Latino communities and organizations. The African American, Korean American, Pacific Islander, Native American, Asian American, Haitian, Jamaican, Jewish, Eastern European and dozens of other ethnicities, cultures and communities should not have been excluded from this process and deserve the same attention to education as the Latino community.
Once the resolution was proposed at the Board of Education in July 2009, there was immediate resistance and push back from all excluded groups, including the labor unions. Everyone agrees that immediate and aggressive transformation needs to occur to rescue our children, all of our children from the abyss of LAUSD. But the response from many of us was reactionary to the point where we separated into camps of for-or-against the resolution, creating the traditional battleground of ethnic isolationism that continues to segregate Los Angeles, the most diverse city in the world. As an African American, I fell into this trap and played into the race game consciously or unconsciously laid by the co-authors of the resolution. The reactionary response, by default, places the reactor in a perceived subsidiary position having to demand a seat at the table, when in actuality our seats are already there, just unoccupied.
Cultural preservation is absolutely critical and necessary for the progress of every ethnic group, and what Latinos do, or what African Americans do, or what any ethnic group does to advance their community should not be a threat to any other ethnic group, as long as their advancement is not at the expense of any other group seeking the same benefits. An alternative response could have been, 'this resolution is a great idea, but let's expand this to include all stakeholders equally.
A coalition of African American organizations agreed that the resolution in its present form was unacceptable and we rejected it for four reasons: 1) nothing spoke to improving the quality of education for African American children; 2) the provision that the demographics of the new school must reflect the demographics of the school it relieved would create predominately Latino schools leaving African American children to a 2nd class education; 3) the provision that the Superintendent could intervene in a stalled process of a new school operator would undermine the will of the community; and 4) there were no other community stakeholders named in the resolution other than the Latino organizations already mentioned. However, realizing that there was a possibility that this resolution could pass, and based on our belief that transformation needed to occur, our collaborative also decided to continue to demand inclusion, transparency and equity by developing and submitting our own amendments to the resolution referencing the issues and concerns of the African American community, which were summarily rejected.
Transformation is change and change is difficult for most people. However, transformation of this magnitude makes the magnitude of change even more difficult to embrace. The co-authors and organizational supporters of this resolution apparently engaged in a relatively secretive process for framing and defining the resolution, realizing that they only needed one additional vote to achieve their goals. Again, I believe it is the responsibility of every community to advance their respective agendas, and have no problem with meetings that are exclusive to a particular ethnic group. However, there is a serious conflict of interest when publicly elected school board members operate with this mindset to the exclusion of the general public school community which they are elected to serve. Of greater concern is the possibility that elected officials are concerned only about their own ethnic constituencies and utilize the resources of their publicly funded offices to advance the agenda of a particular ethnic group. Morally, if a Board Member has a good idea to effect transformative change in public education, they should share that idea with every other Board Member such that true transformation can take place district wide, rather than keeping it exclusively to their own constituencies. However, that would require transparency and inclusion of all constituencies.
There is also the issue of equity in regards to the benefits that this resolution produces for the participants. The 50 newly constructed schools are predominately in high-growth areas, i.e. Latino neighborhoods. They were built with public bond money to relieve the over crowdedness of schools and allow for a return to a traditional school year. The original language of the resolution has a provision that mandates the "student composition at each new school must be reflective of the student composition at the schools it is intended to relieve (in terms of demographics, included but not limited to race/ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, English learners, Special Education, foster care placement). Again, the benefactors of this resolution are overwhelmingly Latino, which is consistent with the constituencies of the sponsoring Board Members constituencies, as well as the supporting organizations of the resolution, which are also Latino serving organizations. Whether or not it was the intent of the sponsoring Board Members, the lack of transparency and inclusion created an inequitable allocation of resources in public schools.
Â It wasn't until Board Member Lamotte and a coalition of labor unions began to draft alternative language that some semblance of equity appeared in an evolving resolution. Added to the demographic language was "Standard English Learners and students with disabilities", which loosely speaks to African American and all other students who have English as their first language, as well as the disabled. Also added to the original resolution was "parent and community engagement and participation-including proposals to coordinate with existing local parent and community organizations". Performance Improvement 3+ schools were also added to the language of the resolution that increased the number of schools available for independent school operators to over 200 schools. With this addition, schools in the historically African American neighborhoods are now included in the resolution. However, the issue of equity still remained because the PI 3+ schools are generally older facilities in need of significant repair and technological upgrades, compared to the newly constructed schools which are technologically prepared for the next three decades.
Where does all this place us in the larger scheme of LAUSD? The Board was scheduled to vote on this resolution on Tuesday and the politics of public education began. In the opposing camp were the labor unions, Board Members Marguerite Lamotte, a coalition of African American organizations, and a scant few Latino groups. In the other camp, the three co-authors of the resolution, The Parent Revolution, Green Dot, all the supporting organizations listed in the resolution, Eli Broad Foundation, and the Mayor.
On the Friday before the Board meeting, the Mayor called a meeting consisting of a cross-section of community leaders from diverse communities, cultures and ethnicities to gain support for the resolution. The support was not immediate or universally given. However, on Monday, the Mayor had a planned press conference of which he invited the same meeting participants to join with him. As I did not support the resolution, and still don't based on the above arguments, I did not offer my endorsement. But I had to ask the question of myself, where does that place us in the larger scheme of LAUSD? What happens to African American children while we continue to engage in this fight over what...the motives, purpose, and intent of Board Members who have clearly revealed their special interests? Should I let their special interests deter me from effecting change for our children or interrupt me from doing what is necessary to advance the agenda of my own community, just as they are doing for their community?
The Mayor's office called and asked if would I support and join the Press Conference. In a one-on-one meeting with the Mayor, I voiced the concerns of our community, as mentioned above, and advised the Mayor that if he could assure me that the process of school transformation would be inclusive, transparent and that the educational needs of African American children would be addressed in the curriculum criteria for all new schools, I would support him in this transformation process. The official response of the Mayor: "Reverend Lee and I had a thoughtful conversation yesterday and he shared his concerns about the resolution. We discussed the process of school reform proposed by the Board member Flores-Aguilar and how it will be inclusive of all stakeholders, transparent and address the academic needs of ALL of our children-including African American children".
We are seated at the table and it is our collective responsibilities to not only hold the Mayor accountable to his commitment, but to also hold the Board Members accountable to their mandate to provide a quality education to all children and work collaboratively for the best interests of all our children.
The resolution passed. Now the real work begins.Â We are at the table.Â It is incumbent upon all of us to make this work for all of our children.Â Let's start from a place of positive intent, trusting the mayor at his word.Â We have time to trust and verify, but now we are inside and can help shape the process, not outside waiting for perfection that usually never arrives.
Rev. Eric P. Lee is President/CEO of SCLC of Greater Los Angeles