California’s Grassroots Grow

By Amalia Oulahan

Photo: Scott Braley
Student activists present demands
to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,
calling for him to settle the
Williams lawsuit.


On Aug. 13, 2004, the California Supreme Court settled a historic case— Williams v. the State of California. The Williams decision validated the concerns of many Californians that the state had fallen short of providing equal education opportunities for every public school student.

Students from the Californians for Justice Education Fund (CFJ), a statewide grassroots organization, along with their peers, parents, and teachers, organized and provided testimony for the Williams case. The original class-action lawsuit claimed schools in low-income and minority neighborhoods had access to sub-par facilities, fewer resources, and less experienced teachers.

Part of the Williams settlement includes four bills, which were signed into law by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The legislation provides up to $800 million for school facilities repairs, sets up procedures for monitoring school resource quality and informing students about their educational rights, eliminates year-round schools that caused overcrowding, and recommits the state to maintaining high standards for teachers. According to CFJ, the bills allow for solid improvements in many formerly disadvantaged schools.

CFJ’s organizing director Yvonne Paul says students played a key role in the Williams case and other battles for equality in schools. “Young people have played a key role in actively organizing and bringing these issues to the frontlines,” says Paul. CFJ campaigns include issues of teacher quality, segregation, and standardized testing in the state of California.

“I realized what kinds of real change I could make,” says Maria Hoang, 15, a CFJ volunteer. “Education affects everyone.”

According to Paul, school administrators and districts can become defensive when faced with students agitating for change within the schools. Nonetheless, CFJ continues to mobilize. The organizers believe many problems in the education system are closely linked to issues of economic and racial justice, and to lack of power for low-income and non-white communities.

With offices in five major California cities after 10 years of organizing, CFJ is forming a broad base of support. And, CFJ youth can now claim the Williams settlement among their landmark achievements. “I have received a lot of feedback from adults when they see youth as new leaders,” says Hoang. “They know they didn’t have that courage themselves when they were young.”

“Students and young people are experts in education,” says Paul. “They are in their learning environments eight hours a day. With support and being exposed to organizing, students can be really effective in organizing.”

National Coalition of Education Activists (NCEA) Conference  
“The Real Mandate: Educate and Fight for Social Justice”  
July 21-24, 2005 
St. Joseph’s University

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