Why We Fight: Equity, Accountability, and ESSA in California
May 12, 2016

They rose before dawn, kissing mothers and fathers goodbye, loading onto buses bound for Sacramento, one thousand Black students strong. A month before President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, sending a message to states about ensuring all students receive the education they so richly deserve, these students arrived at the steps of the California State Capitol with a message of their own. They came to remind their state leaders that they, too, are California. That they are tired of being underserved and marginalized in their schools. “Equity and accountability,” they demanded. And they didn’t just want it for Black students. They wanted it for their Latino and English language learner peers, and their peers from low-income families, all of whom for too long had gone underserved in California’s public schools.

The rally came on the heels of Ed Trust–West’s fall Black Minds Matter Report, launching a state-wide coalition campaign and call to action to organize around educational justice. These students and their adult allies were among those who responded. Crashing a debate too often dominated by adult elites, their voices sounded out over the din with clarity, with passion—and with fierce urgency.

At a time when debate around accountability seems to hold the most sympathy for schools, these students reminded us that our accountability systems were not designed to protect schools—but to protect them.

In the months since, as we’ve listened to students, parents, and community leaders across the state, we’ve heard the same messages time and time again. About the injustice of low-expectations and inequitable resources. About the too-long fight to secure a quality education. About students’ aspirations and parents’ dreams. About the end of waiting and the fierce urgency of the moment.

This is precisely why we advocates can’t wait around, our collective tongues captive between clenched teeth, to see what our state leaders will do as they translate federal law into state policy and local practice.

That’s why when our own Governor, Jerry Brown, of our majority Black and Brown state, remarked that closing long-standing achievement gaps might be too lofty a goal—at a time when the state is charged with setting the very goals for improvement and gap-closing—we and over 50 civil rights, social justice and education organizations called him out.

This is why we fight fiercely for equity.

It’s also why when some said we were being too hasty in calling for a bill to ensure the state board would have to choose indicators for meaningful accountability that held to the spirit of ESSA—that we should just trust the process—we wondered exactly what reservoir of trust we and the students, families, and communities we work alongside were supposed to draw from. Because, in case you haven’t heard, California is experiencing a long-term drought. But not just of water–of trust, of honesty, and of action.

But, most importantly, it is why while we are writing op-eds, crunching numbers, and firing off letters to state leaders, we are hard at work alongside community partners and student and parent leaders to organize community data equity walks, to disseminate information and resources, to find opportunities to help elevate the voices and perspectives of students and families, and to elbow to create more room at state decision-making tables.

As we who call ourselves advocates take action to ensure that state accountability plans keep equity and meaningful indicators in mind, these are the voices we need to stay in tune with, the people we need to march alongside, and the urgency that needs to set our collective pace.

The students who streamed off those buses called for equity and opportunity—not for next fall when regulations come out, not for the following summer when common core test results come out, but for TODAY.

For these students, their parents, and their communities, there is no time to wait and no opportunity to waste.

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Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith is The Education Trust-West's Executive Director

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