California left in Ashes by Suburban Expansion built on Decades of Exclusion and Criminalization of the Poor

What if I told you that in California working Black and Latina single mothers will be slapped with the bill for the untold millions in damages from the latest fire season in communities where they’re largely relegated to occupy space only as nannies or security detail? And what if you then learned that all of the discretionary or “unrestricted” social money for public goods supposed to be set aside for community development–not to mention emergencies such as COVID-19–in South Central Los Angeles and other impoverished, formerly red-lined geographies, are those which stand to lose the most from preventable fire emergencies? This is exactly what is happening in the “Golden state.”

As days of lungs ensnared in smoke in Los Angeles turn into weeks of suffocation, it might almost feel like all of California has been taken hostage by a force of wicked nature. But it would be more accurate to say that the city, and indeed the state’s fates have been sealed by real estate corporations and obsequious governments, whose ill regard for natural and cultural limitations, and whose collusion in land theft, “separate but equal,” police states, redlining, white flight, and now gentrification intermingle like a Fiesta salad of colonial residue, which tastes just as it looks: like heaps of ashes from a darkened sky over the “final frontier” that is–or that was–the Golden State.

Governor Newsom is correct to cite a “climate damn emergency” in his assessment of ‘this moment,’ but still fails to situate climate change within the observed history and present state of corporate control over millions of acres of formerly public lands, largely still unceded by Native peoples in California but retained by companies like Pacific Gas & Electric and other private corporations, whose executives have profited immensely from fire hazards, pollution, publicly funded subsidies and insurance coverage, and more than anything: the mass removal of poor people and even their natural, sacred geographies for the sake of racialized expansion projects such as suburbia.

While the most expensive damage from the latest preventable fires have mostly impacted suburban enclaves developed by real estate moguls away from inner cities, the present state of high alert and toxic air quality for communities across the Western hemisphere emphasizes how fire hazards are not–and never have been–relevant only to isolated suburbs.

Moreover, as urban space continues to rise in density at the direction of real estate firms and not that of working-class communities, there are likely more fires on the way to big cities like L.A. After all, it was only six years ago that smoke from the so-called Da Vinci apartments choked the skies above downtown Los Angeles and the nearby Pico-Union and Westlake neighborhoods, the latter of which has historically been prone to fire disasters as a result of outdated building and fire codes, not to mention lax enforcement from L.A. city inspectors on landlords over safety. While a taxi driver was arrested for allegedly starting the fire at the Da Vinci complex and sentenced to fifteen years behind bars, the blaze was also attributable to corporate exceptionalism to the rules when developer Geoffrey Palmer failed to install key fire prevention measures to keep the complex from incinerating so rapidly and threatening other nearby structures.

In 2016, in a blazing example of belated, half-hearted watch-dogging from local government, Mike Feuer, the District Attorney for the city of Los Angeles sued Palmer for $20 million dollars for violating the city’s fire codes. Yet just one year later, Feuer settled for only $400,000 of that demand, or the equivalent of a small fine for the billionaire’s coffers, which another attorney for Feuer’s office called “an excellent result.”

Moreover, Palmer’s Da Vinci complexes were back in business as soon as 2015, offering non-rent controlled 746 square feet apartments for a minimum of $2,000 dollars a month to overlook the city’s sprawling tent encampments below the complexes. From 2013 – 2015, the city of Los Angeles alone saw an additional 1,300 people added to the streets. Today, there are more than 41,000 people without shelter atop the sidewalks and freeway underpasses of L.A., that is, according to LAHSA’s official estimates, which are always an under-count.

It turns out, however, that L.A.’s lame attempt at reining in Palmer was just one in a long list of Los Angeles officials’ rapid forfeiture of land to real estate firms without so much as a whimper, the result of which quickly forced into being cities like Malibu, Santa Clarita, and many more predominantly white enclaves, despite often being literally against mountainous terrain, and by extension, against the recommendations of sustainable planning experts.

Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear (1998) documents key points of this history of L.A. officials yielding to the mighty developers’ expansionist dreams. Among several examples of how L.A. officials approved the city’s infamous “de facto” segregation over decades, Davis analyzes how twenty years prior to the mass gentrification of the Santa Monica mountains for the sake of Malibu–which was once home to tens of thousands of Chumash people–the urbanism firm EDAW reported that a then-projected 405,000 additional homes to the area would be ill-advised:

“They pointed out that Malibu, apart from major problems with earthquakes, flooding, and landslides, also had a fire history ‘unique in intensity, devastating in effect, and heightened during Santa Ana wind conditions.”

Twenty years later, the Malibu fire in 1993 proved this point, costing over $500,000,000 adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars, which, along with the Northridge quake in 1994 in the “de facto” segregated white valley, sucked up more state and federal dollars than the battle worn streets of South Central Los Angeles from less than two years prior. Davis noted even then:

“The fate of inner-city areas of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake vividly illustrates how people of color are doubly punished by natural and political disasters. The first casualty of the temblor was any residual official interest in economic recovery efforts and job creation in the neighborhoods traumatized by the 1992 riots. Rebuilding the Valley supplanted ‘Rebuild L.A..'”

Nearly thirty years after Malibu’s predictable smoldering, smoke now consumes streets from Los Angeles to Portland as bruised sunlight stares ominously from above, and you can bet Geoffrey Palmer to the tune of a billion dollars that the predominantly Black, Latino and also impoverished white communities laying unhoused, behind prison bars, and under police surveillance across the “Golden State” will be the same ones whose affordable housing and decarceration are again postponed due to elected representative spinelessness before Palmer and his contemporaries.

The state’s latest ineptitude during this fire season, like its hackneyed safety nets amid the pandemic this last half year, is thereby proof that the present struggle against police violence is not separate from the state’s conscription to unnatural catastrophes developed by corporate bottom lines one year after the next. In other words, the same annual budget that strains firefighting from “saving” precariously built structures in fire-prone areas is also the one which provides LAPD in South Central L.A. and across its immigrant communities with zealous field-days; but while the former present billions in damages that will cost the state’s public schools, public transportation, and hundreds of thousands of Californians without access to secure housing, the latter’s only threat is a skin color and some variant inflection of Inglés that continues threatening California’s intransigent white supremacist order.

As present-day neighborhoods like those in Malibu and Santa Clarita were built on top of the ruins of decimated Chumash people, whose residents now live in heightened anxiety every September through November, the past has not yet passed. Today, while Hollywood celebrities have access to same-day testing for COVID-19 as the poor are ordered to wait until they have a fever to show for it, inheritors of the Golden state’s tragic love affair with real estate moguls will watch as another generation of public “leaders” call for rebuilding California’s white suburbs with more expenses on the working poor, including through increased policing, displacement, incarceration, and thus shutting out or banishment.

The only conceivable way out at this late stage in the game is for more citizens to stand against such manufactured inequality by supporting movements across the soot-worn Golden state for tenants’ rights, for affordable homes instead of sweeping zones, for prison abolition and police defunding, and for community investment led by communities rather than parasitic billionaires. There is no alternative to this latter option; we are already living in the alternative, blanketed in ashes.

J.T.

A police cruiser is stopped at a light on Sunset boulevard and Vermont avenue.

Know your Neighborhood: Being Policed in Los Feliz vs Silver Lake vs East Hollywood

Over a five year period, from 2012 – 2017, the Million Dollar Hoods (MDH) project compiled data for estimated costs of arrests by both the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department (LASD) across neighborhoods, community college areas, Metro subways and bus lines in L.A., and more.

Data taken from LAPD show areas where people were arrested from 2012 – 2017, how many days those people were detained, and “price tags” for booking and detainment, which is to say the costs for time that people spent under arrest at LAPD stations before arraignment or release.

Data taken from LASD took into account home addresses–when available–of all people booked into jail by the sheriffs from 2012 – 2017, which are not shown in the data set for obvious reasons, as well as the total number of days those people spent incarcerated, and the average daily cost of their time within the L.A. County Jail system, which is the largest jail system in the whole United States. Additionally, the data set for LASD’s arrests shows the level of alleged offenses by detainees, or whether detainees were held for misdemeanor or felony charges.

The following are a set of statistics taken from the MDH project for the Los Feliz, Silver Lake and East Hollywood areas in Central L.A., which show major disparities between which racial groups are policed in any given area, as well as between expenses accrued for people arrested in different areas even while those areas just walking distances from one another.

Beginning with Los Feliz, over a five year period, the LAPD spent at least $607,237 to cover costs for 1,333 people arrested there, whose time in detention amounted to 2,642 days. During that same time, the LASD spent at least $272,892 for 133 people arrested in Los Feliz, and whose collective time detained amounted to at least 1,737 days. Together, the LAPD and LASD’s costs for arresting and jailing people in Los Feliz amounted to at least $880,129 for 4,379 days of jail time from 2012 – 2017.

Also keep in mind that in Los Feliz, as recently as 2008, the median household income was $50,793, about the same as the amount for L.A. County at the time. Not surprisingly, while Blacks made up just 2.2% of the population of Los Feliz, they showed up as 13% of those arrested there, or nearly six times their demographic share. Latinos, who made up for 14.2% of the population, appeared as 25% of those arrested by LAPD in the area. By contrast, whites, who made up 67% of the population in Los Feliz, accounted for about 40% of arrests by LAPD there.

In the Silver Lake area, over a five year period, the LAPD spent at least $641,943 to cover costs for 1,313 people arrested there, whose time in detention amounted to 2,793 days. During that same time, the LASD spent at least $331,673 for 149 people arrested in Silver Lake whose time detained totaled over 2,142 days. Together, the LAPD and LASD’s costs for arresting and jailing people in Silver Lake amounted to at least $973,616 for 4,935 days of jail time from 2012 – 2017.

As recently as 2008, the median household income in Silver Lake was $54,339, also about the same as the amount for L.A. County at the time. Similarly to Los Feliz, while Black people made up just 3.4% of the population, they accounted for over 14% of those arrested by LAPD there, or over four times their demographic share. Latinos, who comprised just over 35% of the population, accounted for 52% of those arrested by LAPD in the area. Whites made up 43% of the population in Silver Lake, but accounted for only 25% of arrests by LAPD there.

Less than a few square miles from Los Feliz or Silver Lake, the most vulnerable geographic area in the vicinity proves to be the most policed. Over a five year period, East Hollywood saw more expenditures for policing and jail time than Los Feliz and Silver Lake combined and multiplied twice over. The LAPD spent at least $3,454,495 to cover costs for 6,852 people arrested in the area, whose time in detention amounted to a jaw-dropping 15,030 days, or three times the rate of time in jail for those arrested in either Los Feliz or Silver Lake. At the same time, the LASD spent at least $1,487,910 for 516 people arrested, whose time detained totaled over 9,981 days. Together, the LAPD and LASD’s costs for arresting and jailing people in this area amounted to at least $4,942,405 for 25,011 days of jail time from 2012 – 2017.

By 2008, the median household income for East Hollywood was $29,927, or nearly half of that of L.A. county at the time. Blacks made up just 2.4% of the population, but still accounted for 13% of those arrested by LAPD, once again nearly six times their demographic share. Latinos made up for just over 55% of the population, but accounted for 65% of those arrested by LAPD. Whites, who made up 24% of the population of East Hollywood, accounted for 13% of those arrested by LAPD there.

Additionally, in all three neighborhoods, males made up more than 3/4ths of those arrested by LAPD, while females accounted for 1/4th of those arrested. What’s also true is that at least half of the charges filed against people by the LASD were misdemeanors, though it should be noted that even misdemeanors on people of colors’ records can prove fatal for their chances at employment. Furthermore, as noted by the folks at MDH regarding their research methodology for these data:

“While the County Auditor-Controller calculations include variable costs (like staffing costs, travel and supplies), overhead costs, utilities costs, and accounting adjustments, our calculations only include variable costs. As a result, our estimates may be interpreted as conservative (emphasis mine): they do not include costs associated with building facilities and keeping the lights on, administrating the jail system as a sub-unit of county government, providing health care, or interfacing with the law enforcement and court systems.”

Even statisticians will admit that no data set tells the whole story, but the MDH project’s data allow communities to consider just how many taxpayer dollars go yearly towards disproportionately jailing not only people of color, particularly Black and Latino people in Los Angeles, but those within just a handful of areas inside of L.A. County.

In particular, communities within the areas of this comparison can now consider the disproportionate level of jail time and detention costs for arrests in East Hollywood, where more than 52% of the Asian and Latino communities who make up almost 3/4ths of the area are “foreign-born,” compared to the amount of costs and jail time for arrests in neighboring Los Feliz and Silver Lake, which are substantially whiter neighborhoods. Clearly, the state has a concerted interest in continuing to target Blacks, Latinos and working class immigrants wherever they may be clustered in Los Angeles, which also happen to be the groups which have seen the least amount of support for housing, education, and fair employment in Los Angeles over the 172 years since the state of California was forcibly taken by the U.S. from Mexico.

As if to add insult to injury, in a sheriff’s document online listed by the MDH study, the front page informs readers that their department’s motto is “a tradition of service since 1850.” Clearly, such “service” refers to a very different entity than the one so many tend to imagine when they think of this “Golden State.”

J.T.

This fire season will show there is no limit to our leaders’ stupidity

The fire season seems to arrive earlier and earlier every year, and becomes fiercer, more destructive, and more indifferent to the fact that there are cities and towns in its way. There are currently more than 560 fires burning through the state, most of which have only appeared in just over a week. Most are concentrated in the north and central parts, but southern California isn’t exactly being spared. A large handful of blazes are scattered throughout Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego Counties. They are smaller, but smaller is always relative.

The worst fires are up north, in the counties sold to the world as “wine country,” and too complex, diverse and breathtaking for any tourism pamphlet to capture. These are the locations of the LNU Lightning Complex and SCU Lightning Complex Fires. (The term “complex fire” describes a cluster of component fires that started out as separate but have converged and/or are converging to create one massive mega-blaze. Reporters and fire departments will sometimes refer to the component fires by their own name, such as the Hennessey Fire near Vacaville, which is part of the LNU Lightning Complex.) Already, the LNU is the second largest wildfire in California state history, the SCU is the third largest.

Combined, the two complex fires have destroyed more than 600,000 acres and forced dozens of small towns and suburbs to evacuate. Across the state, almost a million acres are now scorched, and by last count at least 119,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes. Whether anything will be left for people to return to after the blazes fade is, of course, a complete unknown. At least five people have died. With an historic heatwave still pressing down on the state, and dry seasonal winds sweeping through, there is no end in sight. We are, after all, just at the beginning of the season. The infamous Santa Ana winds aren’t even expected to get here until sometime in October, but already we’ve lost ground.

Thousand-year-old, iconic redwoods are currently burning like Roman candles. There is good reason that these trees are so emblematic of California’s unique position in the planet’s ecological history. Their beauty and massive size aren’t merely impressive on their own terms. As with any tree, their size testifies to time. In the case of the redwoods, the slow and intricate patterns of nature’s web – so all-encompassing that we take it for granted – are monumentalized. Seeing them before us, we are forced to contemplate how young society is, how temporally small human beings are next to them. Their destruction severs our ties to deep ecological history.

End-times capitalism shrugs at all this. Wildfires are a natural part of California’s ecology anyway, another example of how nature can self-regulate. Climate denialists love to toss this fact out as its own argument, an attempt to discredit the alarm bells. It fails, in its deliberate stupidity, to account for why the conflagrations get worse and worse every year, for the heatwaves unleashed by climate change, to say nothing of the role played by Pacific Gas & Electric’s negligence in some of these fires.

It is not that humans as a whole consider themselves above nature. It is that capitalism arrogates itself as the pinnacle of history, of time itself. The multi-sided domino effects that spill from one realm of crisis into the next – the interconnection between ecology and society that Jason Moore identifies and calls the oikos – are casually compartmentalized and explained away.

Another factor casting doubt over the end of this fire season is California’s fire-fighting capacity. COVID-19 continues to pummel the state, itself an expression of the countless ruptures and fractures in the metabolic rift. While COVID and climate change are separate phenomenons, Andreas Malm and others have argued recently that the same conditions responsible for climate change–the disruptions of delicate ecosystems–also expose human society’s collective immune system to lethal pathogens.

COVID-19 has severely limited California’s capacity to fight the fires. It’s not just sick firefighters or social distancing that hinders the effort. Over the course of the past several decades, the state has become increasingly reliant on the cheap labor of prisoner firefighters. But the complacency and ineptitude of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has turned the state’s overcrowded prisons into festering coronavirus hotspots. Currently there are plans for early release for as many as 17,000 inmates at particularly high-risk for infection, but this is only a fraction of the state’s 115,000 inmates. Regardless, the CDCR has been slow to enact even preparations for these plans; the prison population is on lock-down, which renders the majority of inmates ineligible to fight the blazes for the paltry sum of a dollar an hour. Many reporters saw the quandary coming a mile away.

Many of these same prisoners are watching as walls of fire bear down on them, unable to escape as the CDCR refuses to evacuate facilities. At the California Medical Facility – a prison outside Vacaville specially intended for terminally and chronically ill inmates – officials had moved 80 prisoners into outdoor tents to enable social distancing. Already subjected to the elements, they now are breathing air poisoned by smoke, in turn weakening their immune systems even further as the coronavirus continues spreading through the state’s facilities. The vulnerability of these prisoners presages a wider vulnerability among California’s populace, at least a hundred thousand of whom are now having to seek shelter elsewhere. Canaries, coalmines, so on and so forth.

The inhumanity of this catch-22 is self-evident on its own terms. California, the world’s fifth largest economy, is now tangled in a public health crisis and an ecological crisis of near-unprecedented proportions, unable to pull itself out of one so that it might fight the other, as both feed into each other. Any number of alleviations are at the state’ s fingertips: providing free and adequate healthcare for all, along with a robust tracing system; a universal basic income, or public housing that would allow evacuated residents to relocate, either temporarily or permanently; comprehensive funding (state or federal) for adequate firefighting capacity; releasing non-violent offenders from prisons or, god forbid, shuttering prisons entirely in favor of a justice system that seeks actual restorative justice rather storing human beings like cattle. The kinds of renewals that make history possible.

A rational society would see these as feasible solutions, however radical a future they may harbor. We do not live in a rational society, however. The only new future harboring is of a state’s inaction becoming only more destructive to human life and dignity.

AB

(Originally published on To Whom It May Concern on August 22, 2020.)

Alexander Billet is a writer, cultural critic, and artist. He is a regular contributor to Jacobin, and his writing has also appeared in In These Times, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, and Chicago Review. He is currently a member of the Locust Arts & Letters Collective, and serves on the editorial board of Locust Review. Find more of his writing at To Whom It May Concern, and his artwork on Instagram.

How LAUSD’s Teacher Problem is a Moment of Truth for Progressive Future of California

Protestor on Soto Street and Whittier Boulevard; PC: Namekian Blast
Protestor on Soto Street and Whittier Boulevard; P.C: Namekian Blast

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – MLK Jr.

I: Standing with Our Teachers

This week national attention will continue following the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) over the bevy of tensions with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) called out in their five-day work stoppage at over a thousand K-12 public schools in the union’s first strike after nearly thirty years.

Demonstrations led by the union throughout the past five days have enjoyed broad support from parents, fellow union workers, and much of the public at large, but their most lasting effect will be the framing of UTLA’s struggle with LAUSD as a matter of ‘the soul of education.’ I would like to consider with readers the essence of education in Los Angeles by posing the following questions:

How is it that the second largest city in the United States, which is renowned globally for its film culture, sports teams, university and star-power, is unable to successfully matriculate less than half a million kids in Los Angeles each year? By extension, how is it that the state of California, known as the fifth largest economy in the world for a gross domestic product of over $2.7 trillion as of 2018, spends just a pinch above $10,000 per student at LAUSD and similar school districts under its governance?

A stroll down the public memory lane of California’s politics can tell us quite about how we arrived to this juncture.

II: Prop 13’s Legacy on Public Education

The year was 1978, and according to state department info, California was just over half of its current size at an estimate of 22 million people within its jurisdiction.

California was also a far whiter place to be, with just over 70% of the state’s population identifying as Caucasian. Latinos in the state made up just over 18% of the population, while Black, Asian and Native Americans each made up less than ten percent of the pie.

Public data also show that in 1978, about 55% of California’s 22 million residents were homeowners. As of the fourth quarter of 2017, of the roughly 40 million people in California today, the percentage of homeownership is actually the same, with 55% of the state’s current residents being homeowners. The rate alone says much about the power dynamics held in the state over the last forty years, but we will look at it later.

For now, all we need to know is that it’s amid these circumstances in 1978 that along came a figure by the name of Howard Jarvis, a businessman and Republican who described himself as “mad as hell” at property tax rates in California. Across a barrage of television ads and interviews in support of the proposition, Jarvis rallied about “a revolution” in California tax laws.

Prop 13 was that revolution, drafted to reduce the amount of property taxes that the state would be allowed to collect from homeowners and ‘commercial property’ owners or corporations by almost 60%.

Proponents of Prop 13 argued that it was a tax relief meant to disentangle home and property owners from unfair tax burdens each year, while opponents countered that the initiative would cripple public goods such as schools, parks, libraries, public transportation and other tax-funded goods.

On June 6th, 1978, despite repeated warnings from then-governor Brown and other civic leaders regarding Prop 13’s effect on the public sector, California home and property owners overwhelmingly passed the bill with nearly 65% of the tally.

As a result, over $7 billion worth of public revenue was taken right out of the budget for the following fiscal year. Needless to say, summer school for 1978, among other programs, was immediately taken off the schedule following the bill’s passage.

If a similar tax reduction were passed in say, June 2020, it would be the equivalent of $27 billion out of the budget, or over a seventh of the $209 billion budget proposed by incoming Governor Newsom earlier this year, which allocates nearly $81 billion towards funding for public education in California.

$27 billion taken out of public education in the 2020-2021 year would wipe out funding for over a third of California’s schools, immediately leaving nearly 2.5 million students with no access to a basic education as mandated under U.S. law.

But the most noteworthy effect of Prop 13 is its hold on taxes in 2019. For example, today a Californian who bought their property in say, 1980, pays the same property tax for their home or commercial space that they paid in 1980.

They can then lease out that space to a Walgreen’s or Starbucks–and again–due to Prop 13, pay the same taxes on the property as they did when Jimmy Carter was president. While this has been good for that owner–saving them tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars a year–what they avoid in taxes is money that never goes to support local schools, libraries, public transportation, and other public goods the surrounding population depends on.

Or, as Jennifer Bestor puts it in one interview regarding Prop 13’s tax rate for a certain commercial property in her neighborhood:

“We’ve got about 15,000 square feet of space. And it’s only paying $9,337 a year in property tax. I’m not an assessor but I would expect to pay about $75,000 or more a year in property taxes. Essentially, they’re getting a $65,000 free ride…that’s six and a half kids who could be educated for the amount of money that they’re escaping.”

Prop 13 has set the tone in California for more than forty years since passage. But the property taxes saved for home and business-owners are a major part of how the fifth largest economy in the world ranks 41st in the States on per pupil spending. Now, UTLA teachers beg the question of just how much Californians values a universal education. Although it’s not an outright contest of public education versus private property, Prop 13 makes the two issues inextricably tied.

III: Charter-School Growth

Currently, LAUSD is reported to hold over $2 billion in its surplus or reserves, which the superintendent and several LAUSD board representatives insist are meant to keep the district from bankruptcy over the next three years, particularly due to a growing pension deficit. Nevertheless, UTLA is demanding of the district a significant reduction in class sizes, more resources to schools such as full-time nurses, counselors and librarians, and last but certainly not least: a cap on the growth of charter-schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed schools that “compete with” LAUSD schools for funding.

It’s a significantly different set of demands than those of the last work stoppage by the union, when in the Spring of 1989 UTLA walked out on LAUSD under the leadership of organizer Wayne Johnson. In a recent interview conducted by the L.A. Times with the union’s old organizer, Johnson commented on the difference between his union’s strike and current struggle between UTLA and the district:

“‘UTLA keeps saying it’s not about the money. With us, it was almost 90% about the money.’”

What Johnson means is that most of the tensions between his union and the district centered on wages. But one can argue that it’s still about the money, although this time in terms of LAUSD’s expenditures over the course of the next ten to twenty years. Simply put:

Under the current trend of charter-school growth in Los Angeles, which tend to be non-unionized, contracted-out or ‘freelanced’ schools, LAUSD stands to see a significant reduction in costs for running schools over the long-term. This is because a school that offers no retirement benefits or health-care coverage is far cheaper to run than a school that’s consigned to exactly those benefits.

Supposed proponents of charter schools, like the Washington Post editorial board, argue that charter schools offer “options” to low-income students like those of Los Angeles. But this is an obfuscation of the facts. While it’s true that charter schools offer an alternative for parents to LAUSD’s often outdated and overly bureaucratized system, it’s also true that charter schools are sporadically based, stripped down versions of public schools that operate like different islands to each other.

That is, there is virtually no connection between one independently run charter school and another. This means that in the case a certain charter school fails to meet the needs of a certain student, parents are left with “options” for other charter schools that could function completely differently from their first choice, and which may be similarly under-equipped to meet the needs of their child, or even less so. For the Post to argue that this amounts to “options” then, is hollow and misleading. No wonder it’s owned by Amazon.

Moreover, the argument that charter schools merely “create options” ignores the fact that privately run schools funded by public tax dollars are fundamentally a challenge to the traditional model of public education as a profession for teachers and “a right” for students and their families. There is also thus far no convincing study proving that charter schools in Los Angeles are “on average” better than traditional public schools for matriculating students and their families.

Still, should charter schools bear the total brunt of the UTLA’s ire? One can see why the union would press for more regulation of charters for fear of job security, but are the schools in fact the existential crisis they’re often made out to be?

The fact is that LAUSD’s pro-charter board representatives have thus far refused to draw a line in the sand to relieve the teachers union of their concerns with respect to the growing privatization of the district’s finances through charter-school growth. Now, UTLA has pushed the issue by bringing a national spotlight to the discussion, and whatever extra leg of support Sacramento provides LAUSD as a result of extra public pressure will be by and large thanks to the union’s mobilization.

After all, if Jarvis’s “tax revolt” of 1978 showed us anything, it’s that there’s nothing like a good ole push for ‘revolution’ to stir things up with the status quo, in this case LAUSD and Sacramento’s under-funding of the public good.

Of course, Prop 13’s legacy would ultimately prove to work merely for one sector of the electorate, with consequences for future home and property owners alike. And as Wayne Johnson himself would concede, the gains made by his teacher’s union were largely gains to the benefit of just the teacher’s union. A subsequent set of questions thus emerge:

Exactly what are negotiations between UTLA and LAUSD supposed to accomplish? That is, will the gains be solely for the union to claim as it’s been in previous struggles, or are students, parents and other members of the community in fact a part of the ‘soul of education’, and thus a part of the solution going forward?

IV: The future of Los Angeles and Other Major Cities

Information regarding the costs of the failure to adequately educate young people has long been publicly available. A study released in 2006 points out the financial losses that accrue for the state following the dropout of a single high school student. Similarly, J.T. has noted that as recently as 2008, the graduation rate at LAUSD was only 48%.

In 2019, while the district is closer to an 80% graduation rate, the fact is that the vast majority of its graduating classes are not college-ready and thus less likely to obtain four-year degrees in the six years following the receipt of their high school diplomas.

Simultaneously, today there exist endless studies documenting the disparity between how much California spends on the imprisonment of its population versus what it spends on educating that same population; by extension, the ‘school-to-prison-pipeline’ is a far better known phrase to the electorate than it was just ten years ago.

It’s therefore clear to enough of California’s electorate that there’s a problem with these and other disproportions in the state’s spending, except that since time immemorial there’s been an economy to pay attention to: rent, taxes, gas prices, Twitter and Facebook, and on.

This is not to look over the steps that voters in California have taken over the last decade to reinvest in the public interest, however:

In 2012, Californians passed Prop 30, which temporarily increased sales taxes and raised income taxes on the wealthiest to support “emergency funding” for the state’s school system.

In 2016 and 2017, Los Angeles voters passed Measure M and Measure H, respectively. Measure M increased sales taxes in the county to develop more public transportation in the city, while Measure H increased sales taxes to develop services for L.A.’s homeless population.

In 2018, California fended off Proposition 6, sold as a “gas tax repeal” that sought to reverse a voter-approved tax increase to repair roads and infrastructure throughout the state.

But problems remain looming. 2018 in California was also a year in which rent-control advocates were soundly defeated at the ballot box when nearly 60% of voters rejected Proposition 10, which sought merely to give cities authority to enact local rent-control ordinances in response to California’s growing housing crisis.

This is of concern because as it should be clear by now, the issues of housing and the right to property are fundamentally related to the issue of public education in California. In an analysis of another challenge facing the district over the next few years, that of diminishing enrollment, writer Christopher Weber points out:

“The downward trend in enrollment is due to skyrocketing housing costs that keep families with school-age kids out of the city and the growth of charters — privately operated public schools that compete for students and the funds they bring in.”

Consider one more facet of this political battleground in the Golden State. At nearly 40% of the state’s demographics, today Latinos make up the largest ethnic group in California. Whites, meanwhile, at 37% of the state population continue to shrink in numbers. What’s also true, however, is that the vast majority of Latinos in California are not home or commercial property owners. Many of them utilize public transportation, play soccer at public parks, and check out books and movies at the state’s public libraries. It comes as no surprise to anyone, then, that nearly 75% of the students at LAUSD today are Latinos.

Thus, in 2019, demographically speaking, it’s no longer Jarvis’s California. But structurally, the system he and his contemporaries left behind still holds, creating our present dilemmas with regards to the public sector. Except that if there was any doubt as to whether we’re ready to confront this past for the future of the state, the past week should make it clear: the conversation on justice through education is not going away any time soon; it’s here to stay.

Or, as one Mr. Razo, of Telfair Elementary in Pacoima, recently noted to the L.A. Times:

“We have so many entertainment companies and professional sports teams,” Razo said. “I went to a Rams-Packers game and the ticket was $350. What if just 10 cents from every sports ticket sold went to public education?

J.T.

Education in Los Angeles: A Look at the Numbers

LAUSD chart graduates_

In 2008 the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was reported to have graduated only 48% of its class for the 2007-2008 school year. In 2017, a study tracking the college enrollment rate of that same 2008 class found that within twelve months of their graduation, 58% of LAUSD’s high school graduates enrolled in a two-year community college or four-year university. The study goes on to show that by six years later, however, only 25% of those graduates would have their four-year college degree.

Public data also shows that in the 2007 – 2008 school year, the total number of students enrolled at LAUSD was estimated to be just over 694,288 students. Accounting for a graduation rate of 48% then, we can estimate that at the end of that school year, only 333,258 of those enrolled left the schools with their diplomas.

Applying the data from UCLA’s study showing the 25% college success rate for those students by six years later, we can also determine that of the 2008 high school class, of nearly 700,000 students, only 83,314.5, or 8.3% of them would successfully complete a college or a university education six years after their graduation from high school.

Today in Los Angeles, the graduation rate for this same public school district is cited as being at 77% as recently as the 2015 – 2016 school year. But the improved rate is not indicative of the district’s struggle to improve educational and college readiness at the schools.

For example, UCLA’s report also shows that in the 2013 – 2014 school year, less than a third of the class of 2014 graduated from the district with an A or B grade point average, implying that over two thirds of the class left the district with C or D grade point averages.

UCLA’s study goes on to show that while the difference between a C and a D grade point average might not seem like much, students with only a D grade point average are five times LESS LIKELY to enroll in a two or four-year college.

In Los Angeles today then, for a new generation of high school students, a district with an underwhelming track record in qualitative education and college preparation is only one of their challenges. Lest we forget: these students are attending L.A.’s public schools at the same time that a real estate boom in Los Angeles continues unabated, driving up the cost of living, evicting working class families en masse, and leading many either to seek shelter somewhere along L.A.’s Skid Row district, or straight out of town.

In March 2017, the Sacramento Bee reported that similarly to the way Latin American countries ‘export’ their human labor to the U.S., the Golden State is also a human transporter, that is, of its working class, to states like Texas and Oklahoma.

According to the report, “California exports more than commodities such as movies, new technologies and produce. It also exports truck drivers, cooks and cashiers. Every year from 2000 through 2015, more people left California than moved in from other states.”

In Los Angeles, with a school district where less than 9% of students obtained a college degree six years after their high school education, the work options are limited. And with the cost of living rising, Los Angeles and California as places for such people to live are also limited.

In the same report, the Bee notes that out of the state’s 58 counties, it’s been in the wealthiest two where there’s been the greatest number of expulsions: “the state’s exodus of poor people is notable in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, which combined experienced a net loss of 250,000 such residents from 2005 through 2015.”

I wonder of those 250,000, just how many were students at LAUSD at some point.

This is Los Angeles. And it is ongoing. That is, until we place our foot on the dial.

J.T.

Education in Los Angeles is Still a Civil Rights Issue

Earlier this week Ref Rodriguez, the district 5 representative at the Los Angeles Unified School District, which represents schools throughout Silver Lake, Los Feliz, East Hollywood, South Gate, Vernon and more, resigned after pleading guilty to charges of money-laundering and conspiracy in his campaign for the district seat. Rodriguez originally took his place on L.A. Unified’s board after beating out Benett Kayzer for the appointment in 2015.

I still remember the mail-ads when Rodriguez challenged Kayzer in 2015. It was an often deceitful and indignant race that preyed on people’s fears, not so different from the national campaign waged for the country’s highest office a year later, though with a more local touch; Rodriguez’s campaign sent out ads accusing then-incumbent Kayzer of racist voting policies during his four-year tenure on the board, of leaving his district’s classrooms in ruins, of underpaying school employees, and more. These were distortions of the facts, however: photo-shopped images, votes that were misconstrued, and paid spokespersons. Nevertheless, the consistency with which these ads were delivered to the voters was relentless, and thus distortions of the facts eventually turned into some of the only sources of information for great portions of the electorate.

The race was also a matter of time, however, in that the ‘teachers’ union-backed’ Kayzer waged a lackluster defense of the seat. Although the LAUSD race was a much smaller one than the presidential race in 2016, the same principles needed to be applied to the ‘defense’ of the public interest: in order for voters to come out, they had to be inspired by a particular vision, and Kayzer didn’t much inspire las vecindades towards such a vision. Rodriguez, on the other hand, by virtue of his last name, was regarded as a potential representative for a predominantly Latino district that’s often felt underrepresented in policy-making at both the state and national levels despite accounting for major swaths of the demographics throughout.

I still remember at that time speaking with people throughout the community like the elderly residents of the neighborhood who were interested in a change at LAUSD, for which Rodriguez seemed like just the harbinger; when such individuals at our schools and throughout our communities, who put in major time and investments to both, feel forgotten or unaddressed, it’s a problem. But when the leaders of our community choose to address such people only until election time, that problem becomes a potentially serious liability.

At the same time, when people are fatigued by news cycles followed by election cycles that often do little to speak to the day-to-day concerns of their livelihoods, school board elections come off as only more ads on top of ads and concerns that offer little of substance to them.

But school board positions, while appearing like minor affairs in comparison to national contests, do have major implications. They therefore attract interests from all sides of Los Angeles, including interest from the likes of individuals such as Richard Riordan, the former L.A. mayor and local millionaire on the West side of town. Riordan is a Pro-Trump supporter, and also one who’s known to support candidates on the side of privatizing more schools.

Donors or ‘Philanthropists’ like Riordan, who’ve fared well for themselves with various investments in banking, venture capital, and the sponsorship of these initiatives, have much to say about educating youth in Los Angeles, that is, in the millions of dollars range, but little to no experience in an actual classroom. They nonetheless enter these races, however, and therefore impact not only the outcome, but how people can discuss the issues in the race to begin with; the millions they throw in are matched by millions on the opposing side– or what comes closest to matching that amount–and in the throes of these expenditures, what substance there might be in a contest between two candidates is drowned out by ads, ads, and more ads like the ones Ref Rodriguez deployed against Kayzer.

Something similar to the race between Rodriguez in Kayzer in 2015 would take place two years later. In 2017’s two LAUSD races for Districts 4 and 6, Netflix Co-Founder Reed Hastings was reported to have donated over $7 million to an Association backing the candidates on the side of privatizing more of L.A.’s schools. Both of the candidates supported by these and other donations were successful in beating out the (teachers’) union-backed board representatives at that time, including Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla, respectively.

I’m not able to speak on Padilla’s behalf, but I can speak for my experience as a student at John Marshall High School when Steve Zimmer served as a counselor there; since as far back as my time as a ninth grader in 2004 during my first semester at that school, Zimmer was known among friends and I as a counselor we could count on for a safe space at a time when the consequence for missing class or showing up late could mean a suspension or even a court date. Faced with administrators and a disciplinary system that often suspected the ‘B track’ kids in the crowds were usually up to no good, it was a tense environment for students of color then; but with Steve, there was never a moment of doubt: he didn’t care where we came from, he’d show his support to us regardless.

This was forgotten or discarded somewhere in Steve’s reelection campaign when Reed Hastings’s millions poured into the race. But it is not altogether forgotten quite yet. The pueblo has to remember.

Today’s discussions regarding equity and equality at schools in Los Angeles distinguish two main camps: either pro-charter or pro-union reformers, or people for the privatization of these schools (with public funds), and people for the ‘traditional’ public option. These labels, like the ads, inundate the electorate and ultimately do not tell the whole story about either position. But they should not do so in any case.

Ultimately, at the start of a new school-year, neither charter school advocates nor teachers’ unions alone can produce the best results for the students of Los Angeles; it’s going to take the whole pueblo, the whole state, and the entirety of a collective nation before we can mark a true culmination from the civil rights movements which fought for and brought home the decision in Brown Versus the Board of Education.

In the meantime, however, it is important to note what has happened in these local histories. Those who do not know history are still doomed to repeat it.

J.T.