GROWING UP IN BOYLE HEIGHTS, a working class neighborhood of East Los Angeles, Nancy Meza figured out early on that the school system wasn’t working for many of her friends and family. Both her older brothers went from being honors students in middle school to dropping out in high school. One brother, who was put in woodshop two years in a row, eventually started ditching and never came back.
“It’s really heartbreaking now,” Nancy said. “They’re always struggling to find a job, always in and out of jobs. They’ll be out of work for long periods of time, or they have backbreaking work at minimum wage. They’re struggling a lot.”
Nancy herself was put into ESL classes until seventh grade, when she passed an English test and was lucky enough to get placed into honors classes in eighth grade. It wasn’t until then that she heard teachers and counselors telling her to go to college and programming her schedule with college prep classes.
But that wasn’t the case for most of her peers.
As high school went on, the group she hung out with got smaller and smaller. Those who had dropped out or were thinking of dropping out told her much the same thing: they would get the same job with or without a high school diploma, so why bother graduating?
“Students are not exposed to what it takes to go to college,” concluded Nancy, now 20. Fast-talking and bubbly, she wants more than anything to go to UCLA and then on to law school. For now, She’s attending East Los Angeles Community College.
By all accounts, California’s public education system is in trouble and has been for quite some time. The decline can be traced arguably as far back as 1978 when Proposition 13 was passed, undercutting property taxes that are the main mode of public school funding.
In 2007, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that California ranked close to the bottom in the country: eighth graders ranked 47th in reading and 44th in math. The state’s high school graduation rate has fallen far below the national average, and only Mississippi and Arizona have lower rates for sending high school seniors to four-year universities.
Though the crisis of public education spreads across the board—California schools are more likely to have problems like overcrowding and not enough qualified teachers and counselors—it is compounded by a large and growing racial gap. In a state where the majority of public school students are of color (currently 68 percent), the gap is significant between per-pupil spending in affluent neighborhoods with primarily white and Asian students and those with a majority of low-income Black and Latino students. California is one of the top three states with the most segregated schools for Black and Latino students, and schools—where children of color account for between 90 and 100 percent of the student body—are four times more likely to lack the resources to prepare them for college.
At the start of 2008, California’s superintendent of public instruction, Jack O’Connell, called attention to the achievement gap as the biggest challenge for the state in educating its future workforce, because unlike other states in the nation, the students lagging behind are the majority of the population in California.
“I’ve struggled and stumbled at times over the past year when talking about race,” O’Connell said in his state of education address. “But until we begin the discussion, until we understand our own cultural perspectives and biases, we can’t begin to correct any institutional biases that we might have—biases such as those that allow for lower expectations, culturally ineffective instruction or fewer resources at schools serving students of color. It is time we have the discussion. It is past time.”
Given the stark racial disparities in public education, it’s ironic that California became the first state in 1996 to ban affirmative action with Proposition 209, taking away from universities the power to consider racial disadvantage in their admissions.
At UCLA, Proposition 209 resulted in a decline of Black students from 221 freshmen in 1997 to 96 admitted in 2006. University officials scrambled to come up with some creative ways around the law—appointing an alumni commission to offer scholarships to encourage admitted Blacks to choose UCLA and revamping the process of judging applications to better acknowledge students for overcoming disadvantages. By fall 2007, Black admissions had more than doubled from the year before.
But the focus on admissions numbers is still a limited one in the larger context of anti-affirmative action and systemic public school inequities. Ward Connerly, the architect of Proposition 209, has won ballot initiatives banning affirmative action in two more states—Washington and Michigan—and is close to getting it on the November ballot this year in Colorado, Arizona and Nebraska (his supporters have gotten enough signatures in the three states, but opponents are claiming voter fraud and suing).
With the growing consensus that a college education is becoming increasingly necessary to compete in today’s job market, education advocates have focused more efforts on expanding the pipeline to higher education for Black and brown students. The question of college access is now, according to The Washington Post, a “heated national debate over whether or not high schools should try to prepare all students for college.”
This is a debate that often posits the choices as an either/or: go to college or go to trade school and get a job. The underlying belief in this framework is that not all students are meant for college, which has larger implications for limiting who has access to a quality high school education.
Jarad Sanchez, a former policy analyst at the Applied Research Center, testified at state assembly hearings in 2007 on expanding California’s college prep access. He recalled one committee member commenting that Black and brown youth drop out in high numbers because they are “uninterested” in education. He said he overheard another comment made at the meeting that Black and brown parents “don’t really want their children to go to college…they just want them to have a job and to be happy.”
The fact is, the state’s low-wage job market is not only a dead-end life path—it is shrinking in the current economic downturn. There will be twice as many workers with only a high school diploma by 2020 than the state’s job market can absorb. Only 23 percent of Blacks and 9 percent of Latinos age 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree or higher in California, compared to 37 percent of whites. Only a quarter of Black, Latino and American-Indian high school seniors complete the requirements for college admission, compared to 40 percent of whites and 60 percent of Asian Americans.
“Racial tracking in public schools is well-documented. Historically, students of color have been steered away from college preparation and advanced classes in favor of vocational education,” Sanchez said. “Education policy has to make it possible for students and parents to choose their life path—whether it’s vocational training or college or both—not have it dictated by the lack of resources and inaccessibility of college requirements in their school.”
At the start of 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger surprised education advocates by signing a bill they had struggled to push through the state senate and assembly. The bill, the only one of several pieces of legislation on college access to make it to the governor’s desk, requires all California high schools to notify students and parents about the college prep coursework known as the “A-G requirements” needed to apply for the state’s four-year university systems. Though it came only with a paltry $157,000 in funding, this bill was the first statewide policy passed in a growing effort to provide “A-G for all.”
This rallying cry had begun in 1997 with the San Jose school district. Under then-superintendent Linda Murray, the district passed a policy requiring the A-G curriculum to be the default one for all students in order to graduate from high school. To get the money for these classes, the district shifted the focus of their desegregation consent decree from busing to the racial achievement gap.
Naysayers often use the drop-out rate as an argument against requiring advanced coursework. If Black and brown students are dropping out at high rates now, why would they stay in school for even harder classes? But San Jose proved this wrong. Within five years of passing their new policy, the percentage of high school graduates completing the A-G requirements rose from 35 percent to 64 percent. The drop-out rate for Black students actually fell from 12 percent to 6 percent, and the number of Black students eligible for college rose from 27 percent to 56 percent.
San Jose’s success inspired activists in Los Angeles to build a citywide coalition of community groups, parents, students, unions and more to push for an A-G policy. L.A. Unified School District is the second largest in the nation, with 694,000 students—91 percent of color and 84 percent of that being Black and Latino.
At Inner City Struggle, a community group in East L.A. that helped form the coalition, organizers surveyed the students at Roosevelt and Garfield high schools in their area to find out what the students themselves were saying about college. Less than half of the student body knew about the A-G requirements, but 77 percent of them said they wanted to go to college. By their senior year, many students who were eligible for graduation thought that also made them eligible to apply to college—which was not true for the majority because their school either lacked enough A-G classes or had failed to get them on that track.
“The root cause of that was the district’s inequitable allocation of counselors and teachers to teach these courses,” said Maria Brenes, executive director of Inner City Struggle. “It was like one plus one equals two. A through G had to be the requirement to ensure that resources would be allocated more equitably throughout the schools.”
In 2005, the coalition won their campaign, and A-G will be the graduation requirement for all students starting in the fall of 2008. But the details of making the policy work remain a challenge. “Part of our strategy has been to develop local collaboratives to monitor implementation,” continued Brenes, “because the district is so huge and the bureaucracy so thick and entrenched in doing business as usual.”
There are plenty of arguments against making A-G a graduation requirement. Opponents, including the Get REAL Coalition, a powerful lobby for career tech and business interests, say that not all youth want to or should go to college, and so college-readiness shouldn’t be mandatory for graduation from high school. Where would already strapped school districts get the funding to implement advanced coursework for all?
An important part of the A-G campaigns has been about shifting public debate on higher education.
“I was so angry!” Brenes exclaimed when asked about the state legislative hearing where panelists dismissed Black and brown students’ interest in education. “I think what we were able to do in L.A. is to make that an unpopular thing to say, through shifting the debate in the media and having the students and parents be spokespeople for their own compelling stories and their dreams.”
Jeremy Lahoud, an organizer for the group Californians for Justice that is working on the A-G campaign in Long Beach, thinks it is a particularly good fight to have. “It’s a very good issue because it’s controversial. I think it was good we pushed for A-G for all, because it forces folks to come out with their true colors about what they think about college access for all,” he said. “On a statewide level, we need a lot of base-building and public-opinion shaping. We need folks to say ‘college and work’—not college or work.”
The “either/or” debate between vocational education and college is a bit of a red herring, according to Tammy Johnson, policy director for the Applied Research Center and a longtime education activist. Just as there is a need for rigorous career tech training, it’s also true that to get a job with a decent wage these days increasingly requires at least an undergraduate degree. The real point is that students of color aren’t getting access to the education they need to make a good living.
“We support career and technical programs, like the Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland, that have broken away from the historical racial tracking of the vocational education courses of the past,” Johnson said. “But we also know that in the next two decades, California will need 3.2 million college-educated workers to replace a tidal wave of retiring baby boomers. Our schools must meet the challenge of preparing students of color to be nurses, engineers and other professions that pay a livable wage and provide the workforce that our state will desperately need.”
The statewide Coalition for Quality Education has launched a campaign this year to focus on demanding college access, a rigorous curriculum and targeted school funding. In the process, the campaigns have begun to put a different light on what George Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
“We faced a lot of disbelief in our community,” recalled Nancy Meza, who was one of hundreds of students marching on city hall wearing T-shirts that read “Let Me Choose My Future.”
“They said, ‘Your school has a huge drop-out rate—why do you want students to be challenged when they can’t even finish high school?’ But once they are challenged, they do better. It’s actually the opposite.”
Tram Nguyen is a freelance writer and former executive editor of ColorLines.
This story was produced through a Racial Justice Fellowship at the Institute for Justice and Journalism.