Anti-Racist Organizing in LA

Members of the Coalition for Educational Justice explain the multiracial group's origins, and its campaigns on issues such as high-stakes testing.

By Kirti Baranawal and Alex Caputo-Pearl

“Why do we have to take these tests? They make me feel dumb.”

“Our campus is overcrowded and it doesn’t feel like a school. It feels like a jail with all the gates, bars, and cops on campus.”

“Mi hija no puede leer ni escribir con fluidez ni en español, ni en inglés. Tampoco le gusta hablar conmigo en español. Le da vergüenza. Me molesta mucho que está perdiendo su cultura.” (My daughter can’t read or write fluently in either Spanish or English. She doesn’t like to talk to me in Spanish either. She is ashamed of it. It really bothers me that she’s losing her culture).

“Our campus is overcrowded and it doesn’t feel like a school. It feels like a jail with all the gates, bars, and cops on campus.”

These concerns – actual comments by students, parents, and teachers in Los Angeles – frame the organizing work of a two-year-old grassroots group working on educational reform in a district that, with 800,000 students, is the second largest in the country.

The Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) is self-defined as a multi-racial, anti-racist, grassroots membership organization made up of teachers, students, and parents. Situated in a school district where 90 percent are students of color and 70 percent are low-income, CEJ bases its organizing on the premise that racism and class bias define virtually all public education issues.

CEJ sees its work as part of a broader struggle to build an anti-racist social movement that goes beyond education. Shortly after the United States launched its war effort in Afghanistan, for instance, CEJ passed a motion opposed to the U.S. bombing, anti-Arab and anti-immigrant racism, violations of civil liberties and civil rights, and diversion of public money to the military.

Currently, the group is working with labor and community organizations, as well as L.A. School Board members, to build a grassroots “Month of Action against Racist Testing and for Educational Justice” in May 2002. In addition to teach-ins and demonstrations, the “Month of Action” will include a school board motion to support research on alternative assessments, and a possible second motion calling for the L.A. school district to refuse to administer high-stakes tests. The hope is to link these motions to similar actions in other districts, with the goal of pressuring California Governor Davis to take a more progressive stance on testing and school equity during this election year of 2002.

“Republicans and Democrats alike are calling for more high-stakes tests and new strings attached to school funding, while police and the military are getting a blank check,” explained teacher and CEJ member Noah Lippe-Klein. “We think that local demands against testing and for unconditional school funding challenge politicians to place the needs of working class communities of color at the center of their policy decisions.”

FIRST STEPS

A group of teachers and education activists initiated CEJ in 1999, and the organization now has a small but expanding base of 300 active members. Founding members were rooted in a variety of organizations, including the Labor/Community Strategy Center; the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) Bilingual Education Committee; A Second Opinion, a progressive caucus within the union; and the California Consortium for Critical Educators. CEJ was founded a few months after the majority-white electorate of California passed Proposition 227, which mandated English immersion programs for immigrants who did not speak English and, in the process, crippled bilingual education programs.

“We lost 227, but the fight was not over,” explained Kate Beaudet, a founding member and teacher in Watts. “We wanted to develop a long-term, social movement strategy to challenge racism. And, we knew we needed an organization rooted in the tremendous power that parents, teachers, and students have when they join together.”

Over several months, the founding core organized a larger group that included parent and student leaders, university professors, and teacher union activists. After a series of strategic planning retreats, CEJ unveiled its political program in the summer of 2000 – aimed at Los Angeles Unified School District Board Members and Governor Davis. The program included:

  • End all high-stakes testing, including the Stanford 9 and High School Exit Exam (HSEE);
  • Restore and expand bilingual education programs.
  • “Caps not cops” – a slogan encompassing the demand to cap class sizes at 20 students in elementary and secondary school, in part by redirecting funds away from policing and discipline measures.

“Our demands drive and define our strategy, tactics, and organizing,” said Ramon Martinez, an East Los Angeles teacher. “We create demands that come directly out of real people’s experiences and grievances against the system, but that are framed in explicitly anti-racist ways.”

Because many politicians are using high-stakes tests as a “quick fix” that diverts attention from real problems in education, and because such tests deepen existing inequalities, CEJ has especially focused on the anti-testing demand.

“Since the drive towards testing is so central to and reflective of other policies, challenging the Stanford 9 and HSEE allows us to enter into conversations with parents, teachers, and students about a variety of different political issues,” explained Simone Shah, a teacher in South Central Los Angeles.

For example, Shah said, the fact that the tests are only in English opens up discussions about the right to learn in one’s home language. To take another example: CEJ points out the roots of standardized testing in the Eugenics movement at the turn of the century, which posited the genetic intellectual superiority of northern European whites, and links this to how testing is tied to tracking. Further, CEJ members, in their regular organizing, point out that the tests are administered across unequal schools, opening up discussions of the need for prioritized funding to schools in working class communities of color.

Initiated by Governor Pete Wilson in 1997, the Stanford 9 is administered to all students in California in grades 2-11. Governor Davis then created the Academic Performance Index (API), which is the basis for cash rewards to schools and teachers who improve their Stanford 9 scores (see article page 12). The API is also the basis for intervention in schools – with the possibility of reconstitution – that do not improve their scores. Davis also initiated the High School Exit Exam. Students in the class of 2004 and beyond must pass the test to get a high school diploma.

SHORT-TERM DEMANDS

CEJ’s broader political program has attracted new members and has provided the foundation for shorter-term policy demands aimed at the LA School Board. CEJ’s regular demonstrations at the Board have been attended by CEJ members and organizational allies such as the New Panther Vanguard Movement, Communities for a Better Environment, UCLA Movimiento Estu- diant’l Chicano de Aztlan, Coalition for Economic Survival, Bus Riders Union, South Central Coalition, University Coalition, Youth Organizing Communities, Wise Up, South Central Youth Empowered Through Action, A Second Opinion, UTLA Bilingual Education Committee, and Labor/Community Strategy Center. These actions, combined with negotiations with Board Members, have led to several victories around short-term demands.

For instance, in February 2000, CEJ worked with the teachers’ union to pressure the district to cut down the number of Stanford 9 sections that students are required to take. Students no longer take the non-state mandated portions of the test, saving several hours of instructional time and striking a blow at the testing enterprise.

In March 2001, again with the support of organizational allies, CEJ forced the school district to inform parents, in multilingual letters, about their rights to waive children out of the Stanford 9.

Two months later, CEJ pressured the district to codify in writing the rights of teachers and students regarding testing. Under memorandum BT-76, the district confirmed that teachers can speak to parents and students about waivers and that they may keep form letter waivers in their classrooms. The memorandum also confirmed students’ rights to speak critically of testing on school grounds – after CEJ student leaders were threatened with suspension in April for handing out leaflets that explained waiver rights and criticized the Stanford 9.

Over the summer, CEJ worked to defeat a board motion that would have tied student promotion in second and eighth grades to Stanford 9 scores.

Throughout these campaigns, CEJ has experimented with a variety of participatory structures to develop new leaders. The organization has monthly membership meetings that draw 40-90 people and make organizational policy and strategy, a Steering Committee, organizing committees based geographically around clusters of schools, and school site chapters.

Operating without an office, CEJ is an entirely volunteer organization supported almost entirely by grassroots fundraising (with some help from the Diane Middleton Foundation). The organization is currently setting up structures to elect the Steering Committee and implement a more formal process of dues-payment for members.

While all CEJ members work to bring people into the broader organization and the city-wide campaign against testing, school site chapters also work on specific issues at their schools, particularly those that can be framed with anti-racist politics and a connection to the city-wide political program. Currently, the organization is experimenting with regionally based campaigns (within smaller sections of the L.A. district) where school site chapters coordinate with each other and focus their demands on school site or regional district personnel.

Reflecting on the slow process of building a base, Eva Cifuentes, a CEJ parent leader and garment worker says, “We have to keep on looking for people who have a positive outlook on life and people who believe that we have the power to change things, because we do. The more the government officials attack us and want us to think we don’t have any power, the more we will challenge them.”

TACTICAL ALLIANCES

One of the issues confronting CEJ and all anti-racist education groups is how to define relationships with teachers’ union leaderships and the AFL-CIO’s allies in the Democratic Party. CEJ has been a frequent critic of the United Teachers-Los Angeles (UTLA) leadership, in particular when it put forward a contract that would have further gutted bilingual education and hurt chances to reduce class size; and when it has supported progressive demands in rhetoric but not in practice. At other times, CEJ has worked with the union leadership, such as in helping the union organize citywide informational picketing around a “Classroom Bill of Rights” during the 2000 contract mobilization. CEJ has also had the union president and vice-presidents speak at CEJ rallies against high-stakes testing.

In organizing towards the “Month of Action” this May, CEJ has formed tactical alliances with two L.A. School Board members affiliated with the Democratic Party.

This nuanced approach to the union leadership and Democratic Party officials reflects a key piece of CEJ’s strategy. The organization forms tactical, or temporary, alliances with stronger political forces whenever possible, but struggles with those forces whenever necessary. While CEJ’s primary focus is always on building its own politically-independent base, these temporary alliances open up possibilities to win policy reforms, and provide opportunities to struggle with mainstream forces to bring them into more progressive political positions.

As East Los Angeles teacher and union rank-and-file leader Fernando Ledezma said, “CEJ, as a small organization, has more power than we sometimes realize in the community and in the union. We need to use that power to support other groups when they do good things, but struggle with them when they don’t.”

LOCAL, GLOBAL, NATIONAL

CEJ also links local issues to global and national concerns.

After September 11, youth leader Garrett Williams observed, “When I connect the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan to our situation in school, it makes me want to understand how the U.S. government’s racism outside the U.S. is linked to the government’s racism inside the U.S.” Williams and others organized a teach-in on the war, drawing more than 70 students.

This teach-in flowed into efforts to train members to view surrounding conditions through a structural lens-from their schools to international relations, where U.S. policy establishes structures that violate the rights of Third World peoples, and that generate anger towards the U.S. from progressive and reactionary forces. Voices connecting local to global emerged from CEJ role plays on organizing. For instance: “Narrow classes that are based on narrow tests contribute to us being ignorant of why many people internationally do not like the U.S.”

In the long run, CEJ views itself as part of a project to build a broader civil rights movement to counter the right-wing and conservative forces that currently dominate politics in the United States. If such a movement is to emerge, CEJ believes it will take the leadership of people like Eva Cifuentes, Garrett Williams, and Kate Beaudet – people committed to an explicit anti-racist, social movement-building strategy, while rooted in the everyday lives of students, parents, teachers, and workers.

Kirti Baranwal teaches 6th grade at Nimitz Middle School in Los Angeles. Alex Caputo-Pearl teaches at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. Both are members of the CEJ Steering Committee and the Labor/Community Strategy Center.