California parents and teachers won the settlement by arguing that literacy is a constitutional right. The generational neglect of schools in communities of color shows ‘separate but equal’ is still the norm in California public schools.
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown. So imagine sending your kid to school every day and by the time they reach the third grade, they still can’t read. That’s what’s been happening with children attending underperforming elementary schools in California. Kids either reading far below their grade level or not being able to read it all. Well, some parents, teachers and advocacy groups banded together and sued the state, arguing that literacy is a constitutional right. And now California has agreed to pay a $53 million settlement, much of which will be earmarked towards 75 schools that needed it the most. And today we’re joined with Maisie Chin. Maisie is from a group called Cadre, which is an organization that was one of the lead plaintiffs in this lawsuit. Cadre is led by black and Latino parents whose kids attend the Los Angeles Unified School District and they work to stop the push out crisis in schools serving low income neighborhoods of color. Maisie is the executive director and co founder of Cadre and she joins us today from New York. Maisie, thank you so much for being here.
MAISIE CHIN: Thank you for having me.
KIM BROWN: So let’s get some more information about exactly what the nuts and bolts of the suit was. This was filed back in 2017 and it named California’s Department of Education and State Board of Education as defendants. And a girl named Ella was the lead plaintiff. So, what were the circumstances that compelled this lawsuit?
MAISIE CHIN: Well, certainly I just want to put in context, given your introduction that this is obviously clearly a national crisis. So we recognize the opportunity to really push the state of California, given that we do have the right to education in our state constitution. To really start to look at the pillars that impede and that if the pillars are not in place that quality education is just not achievable.
And so we took literacy, there were a group of students in both Los Angeles and Stockton who were reading three, four levels below. I mean they were even behind in some cases in first and second grade. And that they were being approached with this idea of telling their story, but there was also older kids who had been behind in their earlier grades. And so we were seeing both immediate impact as well as students who had already suffered from not being able to read in an early grade.
KIM BROWN: When you say that children were reading many grades below their level, it really set in my mind a couple of things. First of all, how we are over 60 years removed from Brown vs Board of Education and separate but equal was ruled unconstitutional. And yet a lot of areas, a lot of school systems are still dealing with that exact thing.
MAISIE CHIN: Absolutely. I think that’s what I wanted to say is this is a long road. It’s, like we’ve sort of made a dent in another part of the road. As many folks know, this is all stemming from decades of historical exclusion from the educational process. The basic needs that need to be met to ensure that literacy can even be achieved. Those are things that we’re all still fighting for. So the promise of the right to literacy is really what inspired this lawsuit and inspired Cadre to join it. Because many of our parents were those same children decades ago but they were living their adult lives trying to be advocates, successful advocates for their children who are still going to school in the same systems of maybe worse conditions actually. And so this right to literacy is really intergenerational struggle. That’s why our parents decided for Cadre to join it. And when they heard the stories of young people who were eight or nine and couldn’t write their name or were unable to demonstrate a complete sentence, it brought them back to their own literacy journeys. And I think that’s what’s really been the biggest opportunity here is to actually share the intergenerational impact of this crisis.
KIM BROWN: So there’s a lot of people that can relate to being under taught or ill prepared going through public school. But then there is some people who cannot relate to what you’re talking about at all. So if these children were being sent to school every day, what did their school day consist of? If they weren’t being taught how to read and write, what were they doing?
MAISIE CHIN: Well, I think that is a great mystery. One of the plaintiffs in our lawsuit, Mr Moak who was a teacher at one of the schools where a couple of the plaintiff’s students went to school, really shared stories about the fact that when you’re disengaged from what you’re being taught or you don’t understand it obviously, and there are other things possibly going on at home or in your surroundings that that leads primarily to behavioral issues or challenges or behavior. It manifests this behavior.
And so many cases there was attempts to do instruction but without those additional supports be it enough teachers, enough individual attention, culturally respectful and responsive and relevant materials at the time for that one on one type of instruction. Without those supports, without that model, and everyone reading at the same time, the same page at the same hour of the day, the children who fall behind are definitely just going to become more and more disengaged. And that’s why we really saw this as an opportunity to link the two together. What we really saw this as an opportunity to say there’s a reason why young people and children get pushed out. There is a disengagement that is happening because the conditions for learning are not there. And often low test scores are blamed just on the student being not on par.
And Mr Moak and others and our parents and we have also always known for decades that not being able to read leads usually to behavioral challenges that then cause children to be pushed out.
KIM BROWN: So I want you to go back and define if you could the term push out because I don’t think it’s a generally known term or it’s not universal. So tell me what you mean by preventing push out of students, especially students of color that come from certain neighborhoods in LA.
MAISIE CHIN: So that is actually a great question. This term push out. I realized as I was using it that it may not be as familiar. So I appreciate the chance to explain that for us, push out is really shifting the focus of what most people would consider drop out and then the individual act of leaving school and not finishing school. Push out really refers to the reality that there are numerous pressures and forces and conditions that often lead me to leaving school as really the best option.
When we first started doing this work a couple of decades ago there were also many, many stories of children sort of in council though, because it just wasn’t worth it for them to keep coming. And it’s almost like if they were counted on the roster, then they had to be tested. If they didn’t show up for the test but they didn’t do that well, certainly that hurts a lot of schools bottom lines. And there has been a couple of decades where students were actually either encouraged to leave by counselors and school personnel or they actually left because nothing was actually in place for them to succeed. And the trauma of then being in a place that you completely don’t relate to.
KIM BROWN: So some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit hail from three specific elementary schools: LaSalle Avenue Elementary in LA, Van Buren Elementary in Stockton, and another school in Inglewood. I’m sorry, the name escapes me at the moment. The children who were part of this lawsuit came from these schools. What engaged them to, I guess, be selected to be part of this lawsuit? To be the plaintiffs. And what was their take about it? How did the kids feel and did they understand exactly what was happening in terms of this lawsuit moving forward?
MAISIE CHIN: Well, certainly lawsuits like this that are based on children’s experiences, it takes a long process of building a relationship of trust, primarily with the parents to, you know, I have multiple interviews to really find out what’s going. Our attorneys did a lot of groundwork before we even actually got introduced to the lawsuit. There had already been a lot of fact finding, story gathering. And really at the end of the day, I want to just say, I think it does come down to both the student and the parent and their parent or guardian really feeling that they can share their story without retaliation, without backlash.
And so that’s a necessary condition, I think for most of these lawsuits to even come forth. And so they ended up spending time with attorneys and really telling their story over and over again, trying to find out exactly what the type of instruction they got. When the parents advocated for their students and went to the office and said, “My child is behind.” What were the school’s responses? And certainly the parent’s story of advocacy around their children that repeatedly asking for more support and not getting it, that was also part of the story.
And then certainly our attorneys looked at writing samples and books that compared these students at these schools to other students around the state. Looked at the resources that were devoted to literacy, compared those to other places around the state. So, really it was a composite, I would say of lots of pieces of information to really paint this picture. Literacy was in crisis, but certainly there was not the urgency and the supports to address it.
KIM BROWN: In fact, according to the lawsuit, 11 of the nation’s 26 lowest performing large school districts are in California. And some of the plaintiffs, as I mentioned, hail from schools in that area. But another component of the settlement, and tell me Maisie if I’m getting this right or wrong, is that the state has to advise the public school systems about how best to reduce the disparity in disproportionate rates of discipline between black and brown students versus that of white and Asian students. Can you elaborate on that for us?
MAISIE CHIN: Well that is one of the most, for us at Cadre and our parent leaders who’ve been working on school push out and ending it for 18 years, that was a very important part of the remedies that we sought. We wanted to make sure that a crisis in literacy or a low test score was seen in the context of a much bigger picture. That these students were attending schools that have always been poorly resourced, under resource. And at LaSalle there was a momentary investment and infusion of resources. Wonderful materials, a special intervention program designed for the most struggling readers, a faculty member who is dedicated and devoted to servings young people. That to teach the class there was all kinds of supports put in place. And then those supports were taken away because the grant was over for whatever reason, the resources ended.
And so what that proved was that if the resources were there, even in the most dire situations, that progress could be made. And I think what’s important about this lawsuit is that when those resources are not there, and to link it, as I mentioned earlier, to this notion that when you’re disengaged from learning and you start acting up, and first of all you might be six or seven or eight years old, that in the schools that are more resourced and supposedly higher achieving, they tend to solve these crises with resources and support. In the very under-resourced schools, these crises are often left to linger. Students are passed on getting further and further behind. So they accumulate being behind at even greater degrees and then it becomes much more difficult to address later on even if there are more resources.
So what we’re hoping is that by serving these elementary schools, catching these students at the earliest stages, earliest indications of being behind, the other effects of poverty, whether it be hungry or not having stable housing, having parents who are incarcerated or not having your parents period. You know, not having physical safety and security. That all these root causes are analyzed as part of the problem. And that the solutions that these schools, if they are eligible to receive the money and they apply to receive some extra infusion of money, that they will address this problem holistically. And address the conditions that other conditions that are necessary for any literacy intervention to actually be successful.
KIM BROWN: So Maisie, the settlement amount is $53 million with the state of California. It still has to be approved, I believe, by the state legislature. And $50 million is supposed to go directly to 75 underperforming schools. My obvious question is, is that enough money and how long will $50 million last 75 schools given the amount of, I guess you could say neglect that these students have endured, as you mentioned, over a period of generations.
MAISIE CHIN: So $50 million is half a drop, if that, in the bucket. And we know that. So the hope is that in the three years that we have, we can use this additional $50 million, that it will set a precedent. And so it will guide other districts, other schools to begin to opt in to using their resources as well. Any district at any time could essentially create the very same program that this settlement includes. And they could inspire and cause their schools to do a root cause analysis to address this holistically and to allow the funds to be used for the other sort of associating factors that impede a child’s ability to learn.
Most of the time funding is restricted from doing that. I’s often very, very prescriptive. And so we are truthfully hoping that this is a precedent setting. It creates a template to learn from and to figure out how best to deploy our resources going into the future, especially when California’s up and has choices ahead of us in November to actually create a huge infusion of resources for education. We still have to be much better at how we deploy them. And quite frankly, our parent leaders have seen money been thrown at the problem for decades. And yet the fact that we had to file this lawsuit was proof positive that money in and of itself is not the answer. It’s really how we’re deployed. The truth of the matter that is allowed to come to the surface whether parents are fully engaged in the solution, whether the intergenerational effects of the community that they’ve been living in is taken into account.
And it was very important for us that coming out of this, that a lack of literacy is not blamed on the child, the child is not solely to blame and neither is the parent or neither is the community. And that we start to humanize this literacy crisis. One that is happening in so many communities around the country, certainly not just in California.
KIM BROWN: Exactly. Well 11 out of 26 which is nearly half of the largest underperforming school districts in the country are in California. And hopefully the settlement of the lawsuit, Ella T vs the State of California in which the state has agreed to settle for $53 million to contribute to underperforming schools. And to address literacy rates among children, especially in the third grade is where this benchmark was mainly set.
So we’ve been speaking today with Maisie Chin from the group Cadre, which is an organization, one of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. Cadre is led by black and Latino parents whose kids are enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and they work to stop the push out crisis in schools serving low income neighborhoods of color. Maisie, we appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.
MAISIE CHIN: Thank you so much for having us so we could share this story about why we joined this historic lawsuit. Thank you.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching the Real News network.
Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.