Many racial justice initiatives happened after the George Floyd murder by police in 2020, but one in L.A. was unique in that it addressed the police problem and racial uplift at the same time. Launched in Feb. 2021, the Black Student Achievement Program was the culmination of years of efforts by a grassroots coalition to funnel money away from school police, which it said targeted Black students, and into shoring up student achievement. The George Floyd protests gave the campaign the impetus it needed. The Los Angeles Unified School District cut the school police budget by a third to help fund an initiative to increase counseling, mentoring and other kinds of support to Black students who were struggling academically, and in other ways. 

Though unique, the program is part of a long history of efforts, starting in the ’70s, to achieve racial equity in public schools. First came integration via mandatory busing — short lived and very controversial — followed by voluntary busing, which was basically Black parents sending their kids out of the neighborhood to attend “receiver schools” on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. There were magnet schools, federally funded programs with special emphases — performing arts, music, science — that had a primary mandate of ethnic diversity, though the real goal was to keep whites in Los Angeles from fleeing public education altogether. 

Equality through integration that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision seemed to promise never materialized. Nor did a broader improvement of majority Black schools, which in L.A. became majority Latino. The Black Student Achievement Program is a post-integration effort that tries to close the racial achievement gap that unfortunately has become the true legacy of Brown.

It signals the seriousness and high degree of organization in the right’s effort to shut down any and all attempts to equalize public education, a pillar of our democratic project.

But this modest effort is too much for MAGA conservatives who’ve become obsessed with purging public schools of “wokeness.” In July, a group called Parents Defending Education filed a complaint against L.A. Unified with the civil rights division of the U.S. Dept. of Education, demanding an investigation. It accuses the district of “discrimination on the basis of race in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance in violation of both Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964…and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” 

While Southern California is no stranger to MAGA protests at schools and school board meetings in small towns — Glendale, Orange, Chino — this legal strike at racial justice in the state’s largest school district is new. It signals the seriousness and high degree of organization in the right’s effort to shut down any and all attempts to equalize public education, a pillar of our democratic project. Parents Defending Education, which is based in Virginia, is on a roll. Last year it joined a challenge (in state court) to education activists in New York (City) who sued to make admission to the school district’s vaunted gifted program fairer and more accessible to students of color. That lawsuit was dismissed earlier this year.

Conservative resistance to racial fairness in education is longstanding and also a legacy of Brown. What’s new about Parents Defending Education is that it’s happening in a MAGA-fied political atmosphere that has mainstreamed such resistance. Attacks on race and Blackness in schools, from teaching about the role of race in American history to affirmative action to programs like BSAP, have become not just common to the right, but essential. 

Parents Defending Education does a search and destroy of “wokeness” in schools all over the country. Its website has an “indoctriNation map” that pinpoints “woke” hotspots with red bubbles (California and New York are full of red.) It invites people to report “incidents,” in the same manner as police invite the public to report tips that can help solve crimes. It deputizes people to blow whistles on violators (the Texas anti-abortion law has an analogous provision).  The group obsessively tracks LBGT-focused programs too, part of the national phenomena of nakedly homophobic and sometimes violent protests at schools that purport to ‘save the children’ from mind- and soul-poisoning books, programs and curricula.  But make no mistake: anti-Blackness is core to its mission of stamping out decades of civil rights progress, not just for Blacks but for everybody.  

Like BSAP, Parents Defending Education began in 2021, amid the opposition to COVID pandemic school closures and the growing backlash to the George Floyd movement that made many people hope — and others dread — that significant racial justice in this country might actually come to pass. Though it calls itself a grassroots organization, PDE is run by a handful of figures on the hard right who are part of a larger network focused on Trumpifying the country, state by state.  The organization’s president, Nicole Neily, worked for the Cato Institute, while vice president Caroline Moore worked for the Federalist Society. PDE board members include Karol Markowicz, a Fox News and New York Post columnist, and Edward Blum of Students for Fair Admissions, the conservative anti-race consciousness activist behind the group that sued Harvard and the University of North Carolina over their affirmative action policies. The case went to the Supreme Court earlier this year, and as everyone knows, Blum and his fellow plaintiffs won. 

The complaint against the BSAP was preceded by a series of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) “incidents” reported on PDE’s website by anonymous district staff. In 2021, PDE made a splash when images were posted of a Black Lives Matter banner on classroom walls at Hamilton High School, along with posters decrying settler colonialism, Palestinian occupation, capitalism and modern policing as a historically oppressive institution that began with slave patrols. The images instantly went viral, and ultimately some of the material was taken down. 

Another incident was a workshop about student gender identity last March that was described as ‘cult-like’ indoctrination. Last year, PDE outreach director Erika Sanzi huffed in a Fox News story about a LAUSD lesson plan that contradicted myths about Thanksgiving, namely that the Pilgrims treated Native Americans as equals and cultivated collaboration. “There is no one right way to teach about Thanksgiving, but this is an example of the pendulum swinging to an ideology that seeks to redefine and tear down a centuries old tradition of unity through gratitude,” Sanzi said. 

This is what’s also new: PDE, like the right in general, is claiming with a straight face the mantle of upholding fairness and equality by equating any acknowledgement of racial difference with discrimination. “PDE and its members oppose discrimination on the basis of race and political indoctrination in America’s schools,” the civil rights complaint reads. “The Los Angeles Unified School District is offering race-based programming for some students that is not open to all.” 

It is a perilous moment for the future of racial equity in public schools not just in L.A., but everywhere; a perilous moment for the future of public education itself.

It’s tiresome, but the complaint comes at a vulnerable time for BSAP. The program is very new and is still wrestling with the rollout. Some LAUSD schools eligible for funding (which are allocated based on Black student population) use the funds effectively to support Black students and improve the learning atmosphere. Elsewhere, some funds are unspent partly because of staffing shortages. Success and progress vary from campus to campus, according to an EdSource report from earlier this year. 

LAUSD, meanwhile, is still in the midst of trying to recover from the hemorrhaging of students that accelerated during the pandemic. A district that once hosted 750,000 kids — second largest in the nation — has fallen to under 500,000. There are ongoing battles with traditional campuses being legally forced to share space with charter schools (another way the whole mission of public schools has been undermined over time). Gov. Newsom, though a putative ally of racial justice, is nervous about allocating money to BSAP that might violate Prop 209, passed in 1996 to ban racial considerations in public university admissions and other public endeavors. Despite all this, advocates of BSAP are pushing for more funding. Now, they say, is hardly the time to back down.

It is a perilous moment for the future of racial equity in public schools not just in L.A., but everywhere; a perilous moment for the future of public education itself. It makes me think of my late husband, Alan, who taught American history for over 30 years at a magnet at Hamilton High. Hami is a westside campus in a white neighborhood that is rare for actually being diverse, meaning it still has a significant population (13% qualifies as significant these days) of white students.  

But that’s just on the surface. Most white students are enrolled in the two magnets, and the rest of the campus that isn’t is overwhelmingly Black and brown. Call it segregation within integration. That was just one real-world fact Alan highlighted in his teaching of American history, which centered the role of slavery and anti-Blackness. He did this his entire career, long before it became a political and cultural fireball. Alan, who was white, never wavered about it — as a history teacher, he felt it was his job. The significance of race in American history was an unavoidable truth.

I saw and heard for myself how everyone benefited from this centering. White and other nonblack students, contrary to being excluded or made to feel bad, as conservative activists like to claim, learned right alongside Black students that they had a common history that is racial and racist. It is other things, of course, but in Alan’s classroom that core history was always within sight. The lessons did not simply condemn America; they deepened and clarified students’ understanding of its complex, unfinished history. It made everyone think, and re-think. Ultimately, that process is unifying, not divisive. 

But it’s domination, not unification, that Parents Defending Education and similar groups seek, to the detriment of all. Alan said that he became determined to teach the truth when, during his first teaching assignment at an inner-city junior high school, he saw racial inequality up close. He became angry at that inequality, he said, and remained angry the rest of his life. If only the MAGA anger that’s become so normalized, to the point that virtually no one in one of the country’s major political parties dares to challenge it, was the right kind.

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.