Several months ago I caught a discussion on nonprofit radio about a book that analyzed the success of Brown v. Board of Education, the 48-year-old landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools. Such an examination might at first seem entirely unnecessary — certainly nobody‘s been barred from attending any school anywhere since then, physically or legally. Yet the author found that while freedom was granted, it was never really distilled into serious application or practice, which meant that while school integration was sanctioned it was never specifically enforced, or even followed up on: Think of the newly freed slaves (this is Juneteenth season still) trying to become stakeholders in a society that was hardly ready to give them anything except contempt — a contempt that intensified as dramatically as the social codes of slavery withered away.
In theory we recall the Emancipation and Brown v. Board of Ed fondly, even patriotically, but in reality the so-called beneficiaries of freedom were free mostly to be poor, to fail, at best to find solutions to the freedom paradox on their own, which they more than occasionally did. But individual solutions were never possible with public education, which has always relied on the greater good of government and the higher will of the people for sustenance. Both are in short supply these days, and getting shorter; education reform may be on everybody’s to-do list, but the more urgent and more long-term task of cracking educational inequality hasn‘t been so much as a footnote on any kind of list for decades. Of course, reform entails addressing racial inequality, but such inequality has pretty much been consigned to history while reform has been enthusiastically embraced and re-packaged for the aughts as high-stakes testing — measuring the academic progress of kids more and more frequently in standardized tests so that we may know more and more certainly which kids are getting the goods and which aren’t. I don‘t know about anybody else, but I don’t need tests to figure that out. The question is, and always has been, what the hell we plan to do to remedy an achievement gap that, while no doubt complicated by class and geography, is still inordinately defined by color. The answer in this race-effacing age, in which desegregation programs gather dust and the Supreme Court rules that school vouchers are indeed the answer, would seem to be a resounding nothing.
The good news is that there are people around who appear determined to put the inequality question back in the middle of the table where it belongs. For the last three years the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) has attempted to do that with a local campaign to knock high-stakes testing off its perch as public education‘s accountability tool of choice. The coalition is quick to say first that it isn’t against testing per se, just against the way testing is used to further stratify good schools and bad, worthy students (white and Asian) and worthless (black and Latino), and the way it‘s tied to punishment and reward (high-testing schools get extra state money, low-testing schools don’t). Despite the official-sounding name, CEJ is not a think tank or a policy group but a real organization of concerned citizens of the education community that includes parents, teachers and students. It is wholly unique among inner-city causes — many of which I‘ve seen come, go and plateau into irrelevance in my 10 years as a reporter — a grassroots outfit with a low profile but high-flying ambition and a core game plan that’s actually working.
In May the coalition secured a big victory when the Los Angeles Unified school board passed a resolution to research methods of measuring student achievement other than Stanford 9‘s and high school exit exams. The resolution is only a first step, but it’s a giant one in helping to shift the focus of the what‘s-wrong-with-public-schools discussion from the prevalence of failing students to the institutional absence of high expectations and clearly defined academic goals — failures that are invisible but have far graver implications than the abysmally low percentile ranking of any given school determined by any given test. CEJ is up against a lot, but it’s shooting for a lot — educational justice, no less — and in a picture this big and this unmoving, challenging the test culture seems downright manageable. “In CEJ we have a broader set of demands that go beyond the high-stakes testing,” explains Kirti Baranwa, a sixth-grade teacher at Nimitz Middle School. “We want affirmative action. We want parent input. We want to challenge racist curriculum. We have a 10-point program, a wish list.” She smiles. “We just want to start off with demands that can be fulfilled.”
Baranwa has a combination of youth, experiential toughness and progressive idealism that marks many CEJ members to one degree or another. She learned the ropes of organizing at the LaborCommunity Strategy Center, the lefty nonprofit that gave us the Bus Riders Union, L.A.‘s pre-eminent poor people’s campaign that six years ago forced the MTA into a legal settlement to provide its chiefly black and brown bus riders with more and better buses. CEJ is not affiliated with the Center but it is clearly aiming for its brand of tenacity, and hoping for its rare kind of success. Born out of an organized effort to oppose Proposition 227, which killed bilingual education in California public schools, the coalition strives to be multiracial in the most meaningful sense: Members actually are black, brown, Asian and white. Diversity is not a written mandate, it‘s in the room during every monthly membership meeting. And while people share a common cause, they don’t appear afraid to voice specific ethnic or philosophical concerns, something long — and wrongly — considered anathema to any multicultural effort. “We allow people to debate and air differences and conflicts,” says Ana Gallegos, an elementary school teacher and native of East L.A. “We don‘t want people to feel that kind of thing is bad.” Gallegos admits that the coalition’s anti-testing focus has the useful social benefit of “cutting across race and class lines by allowing us to talk with parents about race and class.”
Catalina Pataño is a CEJ parent who believes the biggest problem for Latinos in LAUSD is a language difference, which affects everything from their kids‘ test scores to levels of parent involvement. Pataño learned from CEJ last year that her kids could opt out of standardized testing if she signed a waiver, which she promptly did. She got static from teachers, who warned her she was single-handedly endangering the school’s chances of getting reward money; Pataño held firm. “Tests create a lot of pressure, and they‘re given only in English,” she says through an interpreter. “The school district doesn’t listen to us.” Pataño is a garment worker born in Mexico who claims she‘s never joined any cause before now. “Since being with CEJ, I feel a lot more empowered,” she says firmly. “I feel like I know my rights.”
Forty-four-year-old Dale Martin has known those rights his whole life, yet they never amounted to much at Washington Prep High in South-Central, his alma mater and a case study in the troubling fate of public schools that never saw any fruits of integration. Today Martin has a 15-year-old daughter at Washington who is a CEJ student organizer; the father attended a meeting one day out of curiosity. “I realized that they were talking about all the issues I’d been talking about 25 years ago — overcrowded classrooms, not enough resources,” he says. “They were planning a demonstration. I started coming all the time.” Martin, who is black, says he realized CEJ jolted him out of a certain acceptance of sub-par conditions at predominantly black, and now increasingly Latino, schools that had been not so subtly ingrained in parents and students over decades. “CEJ wants you to take ownership,” says Martin, still looking a bit awed by the idea. “You‘re looking at the bottom of the swimming pool and they push you in. I’m a fighter of causes, I agree with all of CEJ‘s items, but I was one of those parents who never put it to action. I was sympathetic, but inert.”
CEJ is not an organization beyond reproach. Its critics — mainly state and school district bigwigs — charge extremism and shortsightedness; they claim CEJ is not doing but undoing, battling the very accountability and reform in failing schools they claim to want. Yet the coalition is not alone in its ambitions: The San Francisco school board adopted a sweeping educational-equity resolution earlier this year, and a test-alternative resolution very similar to L.A.’s passed last week. CEJ is looking to take this campaign, and its broad anti-racist educational agenda, statewide, and possibly further. Ultimately it seeks to re-awaken the giant decision of Brown v. Board of Ed that, alas, has slept too long. Dorsey High School teacher and CEJ stalwart Alex Caputo-Pearl says he‘s seeing some local stirrings of change; last year, for instance, the school board passed a resolution known as the African-American Learner’s Initiative, which finally admitted responsibility for the categorical failure of black students in the district. Such public confessions are hard to come by; Caputo-Pearl wants to hear more. The looming district budget cuts don‘t faze him, or CEJ, which will be involved in the next step of recommending alternatives to testing. “We’re prepared to fight the idea that [budget cuts] will affect our progress,” he says. “Frankly, we don‘t think there’s time to let this slide.”