Redeeming the promise of public education

This fall, for the first time in thirteen years, my family was no longer engaged in the annual rituals of preparing school binders, filling backpacks, reviewing class schedules and discussing prospective teachers. My daughter Danielle graduated high school from LAUSD last June. Now starting classes at a top college, she embodies the fulfillment of the promise of public education.

When Dani turned five, my wife took her to Ms. Navarette’s kindergarten classroom for the first day of elementary school. I couldn’t go, because at that moment I was teaching across town at Manual Arts High. But it was an emotional day for me, knowing my girl was now embarked on a new chapter of her life, and I felt the resonance of our shared surroundings in my classroom.

Every day after school for a year I heard about Ms. Navarette. Dani adored her teacher, and through Ms. Navarette, Dani quickly learned to love school. Although not every one of her teachers over the years measured up to Ms. Navarette, most did.

There was Mr. Merkelson, my own sixth grade teacher, and Dani’s computer lab instructor: a caring man loved by generations of students and parents.

There was Mr. Horton, her homeroom and AP World History teacher, who always helped his social studies students see the many sides of an issue. He attended Dani’s softball games and choir performances.

Dani sang in that L.A. Voices school choir—led by Mr. Hitchings—for four years, where she learned everything from traditional classical repertory to folk songs to electric pop songs. She performed in malls, other schools, and one year at the annual California Federation of Teachers convention, where some delegates told me afterward that the performance moved them to tears (in a good way). My wife and I learned not to be surprised at the students’ prodigious skill levels.

Her musical education started at Reed Middle School, where she began to learn violin. Although she ultimately abandoned the instrument, her choice was not due to the quality of instruction, which was superb; music couldn’t compete with softball. Because here Dani excelled, making her father’s Dodger fan heart beat faster every time she took the field. She was team co-captain and three years all-league.

Thanks to the LAUSD, our home was host to Latino and Black working class kids from South and Southeast LA, alongside affluent white kids from the Westside. And thanks to Dani’s math teachers, like Mr. Muñoz and Ms. Mockler, she bucked the widespread phenomenon where young girls begin to believe that math is for boys, and instead went on to explore academic realms unknown to her parents, like calculus and statistics.

Because of that solid foundation, when Governor Brown came to our house one day in 2012 to figure out how my union and his office might find common ground on a ballot measure to boost funding for public education, Dani did not need much of his offered assistance with her homework. Ultimately, the California electorate also did the math and voted for Prop 30, which has generated 7-8 billion dollars of school revenues per year by slightly increasing personal income tax rates on California’s wealthiest individuals.

Closing an important circle, we visited with Ms. Navarette before Dani headed off to college. She was glad to see her, and it meant a lot to my daughter when her first teacher told her how proud she was of her accomplishment.

We hear a lot these days about the failings of public education. My daughter is living proof of its successes. Granted, along with her own hard work, she had the advantage of two college-educated parents in her household. Research shows this makes a difference in graduation rates and college success.

So what makes the difference for students without that advantage? Adequate funding that provides the resources these students need—smaller class sizes, preschool and afterschool programs, fully staffed libraries, available counselors, and professional development for school staff. This is where California fails its students. Even after passage of Prop 30 and Prop 55, the state ranks near the bottom in per pupil funding.

With the enormous wealth of California—sixth biggest economy in the world, if it were a country—there is no excuse for failing to provide every opportunity for every student. That opportunity is available in the form of fair, progressive tax policies that ask those who can best afford it to give a little more so that all may benefit. As the new school year begins, let’s thank Mrs. Navarette, Mr. Horton and Mr. Merkelson for redeeming the promise of public education for my daughter. But let’s also think about how we give the school system in which these wonderful teachers work the resources to help all students thrive.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is president of the California Federation of Teachers. He taught for more than twenty years at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.