CharterFolk Contributor Ben Austin – Translating “Kids First” From a Sound Bite Into a Civil Right

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I’m excited to share with you a Contributor Column from Ben Austin, who is the Founding Partner of Education Civil Rights Now, a new national nonprofit.

I provide a brief bio for Ben below.

Over the past two decades, Ben has worked to achieve a high quality public education for all children in California in a number of capacities. For the past four years, Ben has run Kids Coalition which initiated the push for students securing the legal right to a high quality education in Los Angeles. From 2014-16, he served as the advocacy and policy director for Students Matter, coordinating the policy and legislative politics of California’s Vergara civil rights litigation. Ben came to Students Matter from Parent Revolution, a non-profit focused on transforming underperforming public schools through community organizing, which Ben both founded and led from 2008-14. He also served on the California State Board of Education from 2010-11. Earlier in his career, Ben served as the Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles under Mayor Richard Riordan and worked in the White House Office of Political Affairs during the Clinton Administration. He received his undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and a JD from Georgetown. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Tracy and two daughters, both of whom he coaches as an AYSO soccer coach. Ben is an old, mediocre, and avid surfer.

I will also add that Ben has been an absolute warrior on many advocacy matters related to charter schools and higher quality public education generally, and I have benefitted from his smarts and resolve as we have gritted it out together in the political trenches on many occasions. It’s a pleasure to share his thoughts with the CharterFolk readership. A special thanks to Ben for prodding us all to think anew as he always does.

Translating “Kids First” From a Sound Bite Into a Civil Right

Last March, after the pandemic had abruptly ended education for millions of children, UTLA sent a letter to LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner demanding a blanket moratorium on approval of all new charter schools and charter co-locations.

My daughter who attends a charter school is no different than my daughter who attends an LAUSD school. They are both public school students. More important, they are both human beings.

During the Pandemic, public school parents have watched from the outside as powerful adult interests have made decisions from behind closed doors that directly impact the future of our children.

As much as politicians have talked about education as a civil right for generations, the pandemic has exposed this as tragically hollow rhetoric. The time has come to translate “kids first” from a soundbite into a civil right for all public school students.  

Successful social movements throughout modern history such as civil rights, women’s rights, and marriage equality all share a legal or constitutional “North Star” which defines their values and guides their organizing across election cycles. For decades, the education reform community has attempted to build a movement around technocratic tinkering and school models, which (unsurprisingly) hasn’t worked. Establishing a civil right to a high quality public education would empower public school parents with the same kind of seat at the table to advocate for the interests of students that has guided other social movements to sustainable victories across generations.

Over the past year, parent delegates from the National Parents Union, all of whom are parents of color representing impacted communities across the nation, Zoomed weekly for over six months throughout the pandemic with lawyers and scholars to craft an education civil rights toolkit that integrates two constitutional theories into one politically popular but operationally radical legal framework.  The NPU framework is designed to empower parents to advocate for education civil rights at the federal, state, or local level; and to flex blue, red, or purple depending on context.

The right to a high quality public education unifies across traditional lines of division and garners supermajority voter support, but “high quality” is sometimes hard to define and arguably irresponsible to define. The framers of the First Amendment didn’t include a list of words that were protected because “free speech” means something different for each generation. Similarly, “high quality” should change over time as our collective understanding of putting kids first evolves.

Conversely, the protected class framework isn’t quite as universally understood, but it’s legally elegant because it doesn’t put judges in the position of making policy or defining educational quality. Judges would analyze a clash of interests between students and adults, which courts have a long history of effectively adjudicating via equal protection jurisprudence. If a policy puts kids first, it would stay on the books. If it subordinates the interests of all students or a class of students to adults, it would be repealed and the legislature would decide what (if anything) replaces it.

Combining these two constitutional theories into one civil right empowers public school parents with an evergreen seat at the table to advocate for the interests of students in all aspects of education policymaking.

This theory of change shifts the debate from charter schools to civil rights. It recasts charter schools as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of themselves. In doing so, it would establish constitutional protections for high quality public charter schools to operate, while establishing constitutional levers for parents to hold low performing charter schools accountable for the outcomes of the children they serve.

As we reopen schools and send kids back into the classroom, education leaders are facing a stark choice: either rebuild the status quo ante – with all its anachronisms and institutional racism – just six feet apart with masks; or actually reimagine public education for children, especially low income children and children of color.

In a growing coalition of states across the nation – including California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, and Connecticut – we have an opportunity right now to seize this moment for the children of today and tomorrow. The time has come to reject the false choices, stop pitting public school parents and students against each other, and finally put kids first for real, not with our fingers crossed behind our backs. Together we can establish a new constitutional North Star to guide the reopening process and empower parents with a seat at the table, so that adult politics can never again deny our children the education they need for the future they deserve.