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 2005. There was the depressing report issued by the state about the astronomical dropout rate of black and brown students — 50 percent, a figure that was even higher in Los Angeles Unified. There was the fatal shooting in South-Central, at Locke High, of a 15-year-old girl, yet another innocent bystander caught in gang crossfire. And then there was the ethnically charged melee that broke out at Jefferson High last month, which somehow escalated into rumors about a day of random hits on blacks ordered by Latino gangs — the Mexican Mafia, to be precise — as payback for a cocaine theft. The rumors grew so pervasive that frightened parents kept hordes of kids home from school last week on May 5, Cinco de Mayo, the alleged day of reckoning; the district lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in average-daily-attendance money, as well as a bit more ground in the ongoing battle for public confidence.

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-teacher 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 while. 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.”

Whether the union leadership can represent both the rank and file and the specific interests of the reformers who helped elect it will be interesting to see. Duffy has already voiced concern about the A-G resolution, which he says could displace vocational-ed teachers, who work mainly with students who are not bound for college but who need options (Sanchez acknowledges those concerns, but points out that because of the rapid pace of technology in the trades, all students will eventually need the extra math and science guaranteed by A-G). Meanwhile, CEJ members are clashing more intensely with school-district administrators over issues of free speech and assembly, and are growing concerned about retaliation. After staging a lively rally last month in Leimert Park in support of the state anti-testing bills, CEJ members called an April 28 meeting at Crenshaw High School to discuss a new concern — the local district’s attempt to get teachers at failing schools to sign extracontractual agreements to put in so many hours of professional development. Hours before the meeting at Crenshaw High was to take place, officials at District 3 — which includes Crenshaw, Dorsey and Los Angeles — forbade it, citing paperwork problems. Roughly 100 CEJ students, parents and teachers defiantly held a “sidewalk” meeting in front of the school anyway — in cold weather, to boot — a move that attracted a major-network-news camera and reminded everyone how just difficult it can be to enact reform, especially in an entrenched bureaucracy like the LAUSD. CEJ members say they’ve heard district rumbles about reprisals against CEJ agitators, specifically against Caputo-Pearl. Duffy says he will unequivocally support teachers targeted for their activism, and adds that the union itself will welcome internal debates. “People said to me after the election, ‘Don’t you want to get rid of those leftist crazies?’ ” he says. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ This administration will embrace dissent. I want dissent. I’m going to work with everyone, left, right and center.”

LA Weekly