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Commentary: Is education a right?

Spencer Burrows and Ben Austin | January 9, 2019

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2019 hasn’t even started yet and it’s already become the year of education in Los Angeles.

UTLA is poised to strike for the first time in three decades.

LAUSD leadership is launching a new initiative to “reimagine” public education while simultaneously attempting to stave off bankruptcy and a state takeover.

And a March special election will heavily influence the balance of power on the LAUSD school board.

This moment in time is consequential, but not unique.

Generations of students have muddled through many chapters of bitter political churn since the last time UTLA went on strike in 1989. Over three decades, as the balance of power has shifted between teachers’ unions, charter school advocates, mayoral administrations, and other powerful special interests, not much has changed for kids. In fact, most LAUSD parents drop off their children at schools every morning that look, operate, and educate in largely the same way as their own schools did when they were students.

LAUSD often does an excellent job of preparing students to graduate into a world and an economy that no longer exists.

It is easy to forget in the midst of all the adult bluster that the purpose of public education is to serve students. That’s because students can’t vote, about 25 percent of LAUSD parents can’t vote because they aren’t citizens, and neither have money, lobbyists, or power.

An appropriate New Year’s resolution for all the adult stakeholders that claim to put “kids first” would be to translate “kids first” from a soundbite into a new civil right. LAUSD has the authority right now to define its students as a new legally protected class, empowering parents with a seat at the table to challenge policies that fundamentally don’t put kids first.

This common-sense commitment would establish similar legal protections in LAUSD policymaking as the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution affords citizens in the context of discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. If an LAUSD policy negatively impacts educational quality for a discernable class of students, it would be subject to repeal unless LAUSD can surmount a very high legal bar and justify that policy.

Even though this idea is without precedent, it is fundamentally a back to basics solution. The problem with public education is not that one side is right and the other is wrong, or that we haven’t yet invented the right “silver bullet” policy solution. It is that we seem to have forgotten why California invests nearly half its budget in public education in the first place: to serve students because children are our future.

In the midst of this great debate about the future of public education in Los Angeles, let’s make this a genuinely happy new year for the children of Los Angeles by establishing a new north star for LAUSD. We call upon parents, teachers, administrators and district leaders to make a collective New Year’s resolution to reject the false choices of the status quo, the infighting between district versus charter schools or teachers’ unions versus education reformers, and embrace the simple but radical notion of actually putting kids first.

Spencer Burrows is a Los Angeles teacher and Teach Plus California State Policy Fellow. Ben Austin is an LAUSD parent and executive director of Kids Coalition, a nonprofit with the mission to translate “kids first” from a soundbite into a civil right for LAUSD students.

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