The 2016 presidential election sparked a welcome renewal of activism and civic engagement across the country. On Tuesday, Angelenos once again have an opportunity to exercise their democratic rights by voting in local elections, which arguably have an even greater impact on our communities than national elections.
In particular, Los Angeles Unified School District board seats in even-numbered districts are up, and the stakes are higher than ever in races that often see low voter turnout. It behooves college students, as graduates of the K-12 system that prepared us for higher education, to pay attention to school board elections, to vote and to become involved in these issues.
In LAUSD and other public school districts, students of color and low-income students continue to fall behind academically. According to the California Department of Education’s Assessment of Student Performance and Progress report, more than half of African-American students did not meet level one of mathematics profiency in 2016, compared to 18 percent of white students.
Another report from the Los Angeles Times summarizing California students’ standardized test scores found that only 18 percent of black students were proficient in math in 2016 – a two-point increase from 2014 but still far behind the 67 percent of Asian students and 53 percent of white students who reached that standard. For the English test results, 37 percent of Latinos were proficient last year – a five-point increase from the previous year but still lower than the 73 percent of proficient Asian students. Sadly, poor black and Latino students fared worse on these tests than poor white and Asian students.
With statistics like these, it’s evident why school board elections are so crucial. In addition to the board’s role in overseeing achievement, policies passed or rejected by the board directly affect the lives of students in the district. For example, LAUSD voted in 2016 to uphold the district’s safe-zone policy that ensured that undocumented students would be safe from immigration enforcement. This reassurance of safety allows students to focus all of their energy on learning rather than worrying about their security.
When constituents are well-informed about the candidates running for school board seats, they have the agency to choose candidates that will best serve their children. Quality of education impacts everyone – even those who don’t have kids in the district – it is the key to solving many of the societal issues we continue to face today, like poverty and crime.
I joined the movement for education reform when I started college at UCLA because it was then that I realized I had lived in a bubble my entire life. Because of the sacrifices my parents made by moving my family from Malawi to the United States, I was fortunate to attend schools with great resources and staff who loved their jobs throughout my K-12 experience. When I was confronted with the harsh reality that many students don’t experience the same quality education that I did, I knew that I could not be complacent.
I decided to exercise my power by joining the Students for Education Reform Action Network fellowship, a program in which college students receive guided campaign and leadership training to organize community activism.
The fellowship provides students with a way to advocate for underserved students in LAUSD. For example, our cohort decided to endorse Monica Garcia for board district 2, a historically underserved area that encompasses neighborhoods such as Koreatown, Silver Lake, and Echo Park. We endorsed Garcia based on her mission statement: “to ensure that every child is prepared to read, write, and think critically; to attend college or begin a successful career; and to participate as an engaged member of society.”
Students would be well-served to push for a better, more equitable school system. When I’m out talking to the community about the election, people don’t see a politician lobbying for their vote. They see a student who made it through a less-than-perfect system trying to help other students make it, too.
Young people have been at the forefront of every major social movement in the U.S., and the students of UCLA are some of the best and brightest in the country. We’re adequately equipped to steer this nation in any direction we choose by focusing our energy on younger generations of students and ensuring positive and healthy environments for their growth. Education is key to progress and a better society, and I encourage my fellow students to become more involved with their local school boards. Attend board meetings, be well informed on policies and don’t forget to vote Tuesday.
Chimwaza is a first-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student.