In summary

In the aftermath of prolonged school closures and learning losses during the pandemic, a coalition has vowed to put forward a ballot proposition that would enshrine high-quality public education as a civil right in California.

Guest Commentary written by

Antonio Villaraigosa

Antonio Villaraigosa was the mayor of Los Angeles from 2005-13. He was a member of the California Assembly, and served as majority leader and speaker during his six-year tenure.

John Deasy

John Deasy is a senior partner with Cambiar Education and a fellow with the Aspen Institute. He is a former superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District and Stockton Unified School District.

​Over the course of the pandemic and two years of prolonged school closures, public school students experienced historic ​setbacks in math and reading progress. 

California’s Smarter Balanced test showed that less than half of California students met the standard for English language arts, and fourth- and eighth-graders suffered the sharpest decline in math scores since 1990. The losses were most dire among Black and Latino students. 

It is abundantly clear that prolonged school closures were catastrophic to the academic progress and wellbeing of K-12 students. We now have the test scores to prove it.

When concerned parents in Los Angeles sued their district to reopen schools last year, LAUSD argued that because students don’t have a constitutional right to a quality public education, it had no legal obligation to provide one. This response by the second largest public school district in the nation should be alarming to us all. 

Public education is a great equalizer. Children should not need to have the “right leaders” to receive something as crucial to their success as public education. It should be a fundamental civil right. 

We are leading a coalition to change the state constitution in 2024, and put forward a ballot proposition that would guarantee every California child the right to a high-quality public education. 

Identical in structure to Proposition 1, the ballot proposition that garnered overwhelming support from voters to protect reproductive freedom, a 2024 ballot measure would change the California constitution to codify that children have a fundamental right to a high-quality public education.

Private polling found that more than 90% of California voters support codifying high-quality public education as a civil right. Exhausted by the cascading crises of prolonged school closures and worsening teen mental health, parents are leading the movement to put kids first. They are joined by educators, civil rights and equity leaders, as well as mental health advocates.

A recent poll by California Parent Power found that just 31% of voters believe California’s leaders have a plan to improve public education, and nearly 75% of them would prefer a candidate who has a plan to get public school students back on track. Recognizing high-quality public education as a civil right is the kind of transformational change our children deserve. 

At the same time, it will help restore trust in California leaders.

If public school systems are failing to teach kids how to read and do math – and if parents can no longer rely on schools – they will disinvest in them, as some already have. Those who can afford private school or homeschooling will take their kids out of public school, leaving largely poorer, nonwhite families with underfunded campuses. 

The quality of a child’s public education shouldn’t be dependent on their parents’ income. Enshrining the right to a high-quality education would empower families to hold politicians accountable to their kids-first rhetoric. This is particularly important for communities of color, which have long been ignored by educational stakeholders to the detriment of their kids. 

What happens in California matters to the rest of the nation. Over the next two years, voters should consider what high quality public education means to each and every public school student.

This will be an opportunity to reestablish California’s priorities, and finally recognize that a high-quality public education should be a right, not a sound bite.

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