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Commentary: An extraordinary effort for extraordinary need

Ben Austin | April 3, 2014

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Ben Austin

Ben Austin

LAUSD School Board Member Steve Zimmer’s recent commentary “Standing with Beatriz” hit the nail on the head on one key issue: for our children, the stakes are high.

Let me acknowledge first that Mr. Zimmer is a good person who is doing what he feels is best for the children of LAUSD. On this issue, however, we have a principled disagreement about what that is.

Mr. Zimmer portrays himself as a grassroots underdog taking on a phalanx of nefarious billionaires who aim to “privatize” public education. What he fails to mention, is that he was also supported by over one million dollars in campaign contributions from the biggest and most powerful special interest group in the state. That fact doesn’t make him right or wrong, but it does make him part of the system. It isn’t a coincidence that the same adult special interests that bankrolled his campaign are now bankrolling the opposition to Vergara.

Mr. Zimmer wrote about the “Vergara fiction,” that the status quo is broken. But this harsh reality is unfortunately not fiction for the children who lose their talented, dedicated and loving teachers to layoffs each year just because they were hired last. And it’s not fiction for the children who have been molested and for those who were literally forced to eat semen by a teacher who was paid $40,000 to retire, with full benefits!

Vergara shifts the focus from the interests of adults to where it should have been all along: children.

Putting children first must be the “north star” by which all decisions are made in our public education system. Ninety one percent of likely California voters support a children-first agenda, but far too often the interests of powerful adults trump the interests of children.

This is not a coincidence.

It’s because kids don’t have a political action committee, and kids don’t have lobbyists.

Beatriz Vergara and the millions of children attending California public schools can’t vote.

When I served on California’s State Board of Education, every time I cast a vote there were lobbyists for teachers unions, administrator unions, charter schools and a plethora of other special interests sitting right there in the front row. Lobbying me. Watching me. Keeping track of every vote. They do the same with Mr. Zimmer.

But the seat for kids is always empty. Because kids don’t have lobbyists.

Sadly, the ordinary political process has failed our children, especially our low-income children, children of color and undocumented children. It has left a broken status quo in its wake. Extraordinary measures are now required.

The landmark Parent Empowerment Act – also known as the Parent Trigger – provides parents with a real seat at the table to advocate for the interests of their kids. That’s the theory of change undergirding the work of Parent Revolution.

Another innovative theory of change comes through the Vergara lawsuit, recognizing and enforcing a child’s constitutional right to a quality education because the normal political process has failed to do so.

As an LAUSD dad, I witness firsthand the inequity of the system every single day. Far too many children are sentenced to a high or low quality school based solely on their zip code or neighborhood.

I am fortunate to live in a nice neighborhood in West LA. On many mornings, I drop my daughter off at our neighborhood LAUSD school and walk past empowered parents who are getting what they need for their kids. I pass dedicated and effective educators who love our kids and are invested in their development.

After dropping off my daughter, because of my work at Parent Revolution, I often drive to schools like 24th Street Elementary School in the South LA/West Adams neighborhood. I hear stories from parents that kids and teachers were getting sick from noxious fumes and no one knew why, but no one took action to figure it out.

Once Parents Union members began to organize and collectively demand a better school, district officials took action and discovered the dead animal carcasses rotting in the air vents!

If there were dead animals on my daughter’s campus, there would be a S.W.A.T. team surrounding the remains before a parent or child even noticed it.

Same city. Same district. Same age kids. Same type of neighborhood school.

But nothing about those schools felt the same.

At 24th Street, the parents used their power under the Parent Empowerment law and now things are different.

Now the interests of children are represented at the bargaining table. Now the dead animals are cleaned up and the school has a culture of high expectations. But that’s not the case in over a thousand failing schools across the state of California.

As a parent, it is obvious to me that California children’s constitutional right to an equitable education is being violated every single tragic day, because these children are forced to accept conditions I would never accept for my own daughters.

Even if the ordinary political process doesn’t (or can’t) provide children a seat at the table when it comes to decisions that impact their future, this judge has the power to acknowledge the harsh reality of the status quo, and can make the common sense judgment that constitutional liberties exist to serve this exact purpose: to protect discrete and insular minorities who can’t protect themselves in the ordinary political process.

In the case of Vergara, that means protecting children like Beatriz and thousands of other children across the state.

A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would embrace a bedrock principle as old as America itself: our children are our future and we must place their interests above our own.

Ben Austin is Executive Director of Parent Revolution and a board member of Students Matter, the organization bringing the Vergara case.

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