In summary

The arguments made by the Los Angeles Unified School District to fight a 2021 lawsuit attempting to reopen schools sparked a campaign to enshrine a constitutional right to a high-quality education. Let the politics begin.

As COVID-19 began to abate in 2021, a group of Los Angeles parents filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District, demanding that the district fully reopen schools. The claim had policy defects – it was offered at a moment of uncertainty about the health consequences of putting students together in close spaces – but the suit rested on an argument that might strike many as obvious: that school districts in California have an obligation to provide a quality education to young people. 

To the surprise of those parents and many others, LAUSD, then under the leadership of Superintendent Austin Beutner, insisted that it had no such duty. Although the California Constitution stresses the importance of “a general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence” and charges the Legislature with the “promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement,” including the establishment of “common schools,” the district insisted that those clauses are “aspirational” and do not impose a duty on any district to provide good schools, just free ones. 

Pause on that for a moment. The leaders of a school system that attempts to educate more than 548,000 children and each year chews through billions of dollars accepts that it is legally responsible for doing that work – just not for doing it well.

For those who think otherwise – in other words, for those who demand good schools for their children – that presents a challenge. 

And this is where a new political campaign comes in. Led by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a coalition of parents and civil rights advocates, supporters of a proposed ballot measure are attempting to create the constitutional obligation that LAUSD refused to accept two years ago.

That effort took a step forward late last month when Attorney General Rob Bonta supplied the proponents with ballot titles and official summaries for three versions of the proposed amendment. Supporters were heartened after the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the measure would have no direct fiscal impact on the state and the AG accepted their proposed ballot language. 

While three options were approved, campaign officials say they are inclined to go with this proposition: 

“The state and its school districts shall provide all public-school students with high-quality public schools that equip them with the tools necessary to participate fully in our economy, our society, and our democracy.”

Let the politics begin.

Enshrining a right also creates opportunities to define and defend that right, so the political question is: Who would that language benefit, and who might it disadvantage?

Let’s say, for instance, that the right to attend a “high-quality public school” was subverted by district policies that allowed more veteran teachers to choose their teaching assignments, and the result was that experienced teachers gravitated to wealthier, safer neighborhoods. If that meant that wealthy kids were receiving a notably better education than poorer students, those suffering in lesser schools could claim that their constitutional rights were being violated. 

Or, imagine that employment protections made it difficult to fire teachers whose students were routinely failing basic tests. Or that some schools were graduating large numbers of students who lacked basic competencies – for instance, they were illiterate or incapable of doing elementary math.

That’s not a stretch, either. All of those problems exist today. But students and their parents have little recourse because current law doesn’t guarantee a quality education.

In an op-ed for CalMatters, Villaraigosa and former LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy argued for the initiative on those terms.

“The quality of a child’s public education shouldn’t be dependent on their parents’ income,” they wrote. “Enshrining the right to a high-quality education would empower families to hold politicians accountable to their kids-first rhetoric.” 

Politically, then, enshrining such a right in the state’s constitution is a bounce shot that would give students and parents more leverage to demand change from schools – to “hold politicians accountable,” as Villaraigosa and Deasy put it. And that leverage would empower parents in struggles against teachers unions, which fight for their members’ pay, job security and benefits.

“The quality of a child’s public education shouldn’t be dependent on their parents’ income.”

antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of los angeles

Naturally, then, this effort will unfold under the skeptical eye of the California Teachers Association and local unions such as United Teachers Los Angeles, the dominant force in this region’s educational system, for better and for worse.

If the ballot measure qualifies, will teachers unions fight against it? They’re not saying yet, in part because that course, while it might seem natural, has its own perils: Do teachers unions really want to spend millions of dollars to contest the notion that Californians have the right to send their children to good schools? That would be a messy business.

In an interview this week, Villaraigosa, a onetime union organizer who tangled with teachers unions as mayor, said the proposal is driven by a desire to see that young people can “function in our economy and our democracy at a level that allows them to thrive and succeed.”

As for riling teachers, Villaraigosa insisted that was not his intent. To the contrary, he said that establishing this constitutional right would give power to all interests demanding investment in education. 

“We can’t do this if teachers aren’t involved and don’t benefit,” he said.

For Christina Laster, this issue first took shape when her son was a new student in the San Diego public school system. She clashed with administrators who pigeonholed her child. She was furious at what she saw as racism and neglect. She had spent decades entrusting her kids to public schools but she had reached her limit.

Laster, now the western regional director of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization, refuses to accept that the state cannot – or will not – commit to providing a good education as a matter of right. 

The efforts of Black parents, she said, “have not been well-received,” and she’s angry at the indifference that the LAUSD and so many other educators demonstrate in the face of evidence that children – especially poor and nonwhite children – are suffering.

With signature-gathering expected to begin this month, Laster is squarely behind this initiative, and many other parents will likely join her. 

“I would like to see California finally take a step in the right direction,” she said, “to ensure that our children have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and beyond.”

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Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics....