A community organizer who worked in Obama’s Department of Education tells us how to stand up for schools under Betsy DeVos
Betsy DeVos appears before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for her confirmation hearing. Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
On Tuesday, GOP donor Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick to oversee the Department of Education, was narrowly cleared by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, despite her much-maligned confirmation hearing performance, unanimous Democratic opposition, multiple delays, and late-breaking evidence that she’d plagiarized answers on the questionnaire she’d submitted to the panel. Her nomination now goes to the full Senate floor, where a simple majority would result in her confirmation.
The likely new leader of America’s school system is unfamiliar with basic education theory (though she’s a staunch advocate for school choice). She believes schools should allow guns in case of bear attacks. She’s also been hesitant to confirm whether she’ll offer support to disabled students, possibly in defiance of federal law.
To get a little perspective, GOOD reached out to Los Angeles-based education expert Alberto Retana, 37, who worked under the Obama administration in the Department of Education as director of community outreach. Today, Retana serves as president and CEO of Los Angeles education advocacy group Community Coalition.
Below, the child of immigrants and product of American public schools lays out what he thinks is really at stake for U.S. education under Trump and DeVos. He also offers a few tips for anyone who wants to take action.
So you initially worked at Community Coalition when you were 23, then came back in 2011. Did that first experience lead to your gig with Obama?
At Community Coalition, we organize high school kids around a series of issues, one of which was a significant victory for LA—making college preparatory classes a civil right in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2005. Back then, two out of 10 graduates were going to four-year colleges, so the number of students that disappeared over the course of four years was pretty significant. We really forced the district to not only raise expectations, but back those expectations with a different type of instruction and support.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Even under a friend like Obama, the most significant change happens in your neighborhood. Change is never really going to come from D.C.[/quote]
After Obama was elected, I got a call from the assistant secretary of civil rights at that time, Russlynn Ali, who said, “Hey, what you all are doing around community engagement and student organizing is so important, but we need to do that nationally. Do you want to come work in the Obama administration?” To be honest with you, the first thing I said is, “That would be great, but my work is really important here, so I don’t think so,” and then I spoke to my brother, I spoke to my wife, and spoke to my colleagues. They all said, “What’s wrong with you? You have to go.” My brother went so far as to call me arrogant, and he’s my hero, so after talking to him, I said, “Absolutely.”
What was your focus there?
In 2009, I joined the administration for two years. Basically, I did listening tours and motivated local activists into turning around our country’s lowest performing schools. I did a series of meetings with communities, talking about how they could leverage federal education dollars, and really told them to leverage me to get access to their superintendents or boards of education—because often, parents and students are the last ones to be brought to the table on education reform. First it’s teachers, it’s administrators, it’s politicians, it’s charter schools, it’s corporations. My job was to put families at the front of the table.
In 2011, I decided to come home to LA because I felt like it wasn’t enough to parachute in and fix things. Education reform is in the details. It’s about community organizing. Even under a friend like Obama, the most significant change happens in your neighborhood. Change is never really going to come from D.C., and not only when it comes to education. It wasn’t the March on Washington for freedom in jobs that changed the country—it was the local organizing. The Montgomery boycott, the work in Selma, the sanitation workers in Memphis, in Ferguson, in Baltimore that had an impact on D.C. That’s an important lesson over these next four years that we have to stick to.
How worried should we be about Betsy DeVos? What’s actually at risk right now?
The Department of Education has the sacred responsibility of expanding opportunities for disadvantaged kids—that’s at the core of it—and DeVos is not a champion for disadvantaged children. We’re going to relapse into a Department of Education that does not strive for advancing civil rights, equity, or justice, and that’s a pretty big problem. So there’s a lot to lose here from the federal level.
But even though the federal government sets the narrative for what public education will look like, most of the decisions are made at the state and local level. So people on the ground need to say, “No, it’s absolutely not right for you to not enforce regulations that support individuals with disabilities. It is not right for you to not enforce regulations to hold schools accountable for educating all students. It is not right for there to be guns in schools.” This is not just a battle of policy and dollars—this is a battle of ideas over the future of this country, and if we stay quiet locally and don’t talk about the national debate, we run the risk of losing that battle, which is followed by losing out on money and policies and an even greater disaster for the public education system that’s supposed to support our children.
What can we do locally? What do I vote for? Who should I call?
You don’t have to wait for a major policy fight to have an impact on education. Anybody can join the PTA—you don’t have to be a parent or teacher. Become a volunteer and get to know your neighborhood school, get to know its problems, and be a part of the solution. Beyond that, there are three things that everyday residents can do.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]This is not just a battle of policy and dollars—this is a battle of ideas over the future of this country.[/quote]
On a very basic level, they can identify an organization that is working on the issue they care about and they can donate. People have their time, their talent, and their treasure. That treasure really goes a long way because a lot of organizations similar to Community Coalition that are on the front line fighting for education aren’t exactly backed by the One Percent.
The second thing you can do is to come together with your neighbors and have conversations about the issues you care about. Education is a very important issue, but when was the last time you talked to the person who lives next to you about the state of nearby schools? Organize dinners, invite your neighbors over, and say, “Hey, tonight we’re going to talk about education. Who here has a kid? What are some of the things that you’re struggling with?” With Trump in office, we need to be brought closer together as a city, a community, but really as a country.
The third thing is be part of an organization like Community Coalition. For instance, one important issue that we’re working on is equity in funding. The state dollars they give to LA are spread out equally, and we think more resources should go to the schools with the highest poverty rates, the highest number of kids on foster care, the highest number of English learners, where students are exposed to gun violence at a higher rate, with higher in-school suspension rates.
Every summer, the Children’s Defense Fund is in need of volunteers nationwide who can help during their eight-week literacy project that works with elementary through high school, so there’s a lot you can do locally.
Even under the last administration, the United States was ranked very low when it comes to education—I believe we’re number 25 on the list right now. If we had all the money in the world and everyone was as supportive as possible, what would it really take to elevate kids in need and get everyone on a basic level of critical thinking?
I believe that the adults in the room need to get out of the way. I think that the political ecology surrounding our schools is fractured. We have people running charter schools, teacher’s unions, and public school systems making decisions about what they think is best for children and families. But that starts by finding out from children and families themselves what’s most important to them. For the U.S. to go up in the ranking, we need to actually put the interest of the kids first—don’t allow contract fights to dictate what happens in the classroom; don’t allow elections to dictate our children’s future.
So, something I saw come up a lot in this election cycle is charter schools—the idea of “school choice.” What does that really mean? Is it a good or bad thing, in your view?
Look, kids learn in different ways and respond to different environments, and so you want to have an array of options available to your children to best align with the way they go about learning and what excites them. Some kids are going to be much more into the arts. Some kids are going to be much more into science. Some folks are going to respond better to rote memorization. So regardless of the color of your skin or income level, you can benefit from an array of choices that helps you learn in the way that you want to learn or are capable of learning. Unfortunately, more often than not, your zip code determines the quality of schooling you get as a child.
Community Coalition’s float at the Martin Luther King Kingdom Day parade in South LA was themed “Advancing King’s Dream,” which symbolizes the power of community organizing throughout the years at crucial times in our nation’s history.
What do you think is working in LA that might work across the country?
I think that our commitment to ending the school-to-prison pipeline in Los Angeles is huge, and it only began to change because of community pressure, citizens pushing their school boards and their districts to change policies like willful defiance. Have you heard of willful defiance?
Only loosely. Can you explain it?
So willful defiance used to be a policy in LAUSD that basically was like stop-and-frisk for students. If you talked back to your teacher, if you wore particular kinds of clothing, if you disrespected an adult in any way—basically, if you acted like a teenager—you would be categorized as willfully defiant and suspended. In 2012, there were approximately 75,000 suspensions, which is like filling up Dodger Stadium twice, and the vast majority of students were suspended for willful defiance. Nothing to do with a gun or drugs. And when you’re suspended, you’re not in the classroom, and when you’re not in the classroom, you’re not learning.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]I believe that the adults in the room need to get out of the way.[/quote]
But LAUSD students fought for a school climate bill of rights that would do away with willful defiance as a category for suspension. Similar to the rest of the country, black kids were getting suspended 3 to 4 times more often than white kids; Latinos twice as much as a white kids. After we got rid of willful defiance, we went from over 70,000 suspensions to a little over 10,000 in 2014.
Today we’re developing a set of strategies to help teachers better deal with classroom management and disruption—to understand that a lot of these kids, particularly in the inner city, are surrounded by violence. Acting out in the classroom is tied to trauma. And when folks get suspended from school and eventually expelled, their chances of getting caught up in the criminal justice system as an adult is significantly larger. By keeping kids in school, we’re tackling mass incarceration at a different level.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Acting out in the classroom is tied to trauma. By keeping kids in school, we’re tackling mass incarceration.[/quote]
LA is really leading the country on this, and it would not have happened had it not been for the community getting involved. Movements are built in living rooms. I would encourage you to host something at your house about education. The more we get strangers who live near each other to become neighbors and really know each other, the better we’ll be 1,372 days from now when the next election is on the docket.