California schools lead the nation on one notable issue: protecting the civil rights of our children, especially LGBT youth. It’s debatable if this is as important as student achievement, but the health and safety of LGBT youth is vital. The California legislature and Governor have led the way on this issue.
On Aug.12, California became the first state to protect the civil rights of transgender K-12 students with AB 1266. Assembly Speaker John Perez said the law “puts California at the forefront of leadership on transgender rights.” This new law requires public schools to allow transgender students access to the locker room or bathroom of their preferred gender. Massachusetts and Connecticut have similar statewide policies, but California is the first state to enshrine them in statute. Certainly, the implementation of the law creates a new level of complexity for school and district administrators.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education put out an advisory for the first time that added LGBT youth to the list of people protected from discrimination. Formerly, the list protected all students against discrimination based on race, gender, religion, national origin and disability. The advisory warns that non-compliance could lead to a loss of federal education dollars. To be in compliance, all schools and districts must protect LGBT students from harassment.
Laws protecting the civil rights of individuals can lead to big changes in a short timeframe. On Friday, Cassidy Campbell became the first known transgender high school homecoming queen. The 16-year-old student who attends Marina High School said after winning the crown, “I’m so proud to win this not just for me but for everyone out there and for every kid—transgender, gay, straight, black, white, Mexican, Asian. It doesn’t matter, you can be yourself.”
I hope all educators, elected school board members and policy makers prepare for pushback when the new policies and emerging trends become commonplace. Discussing the issues openly at board meetings, in order to gain increased understanding of the inherently sensitive issues, is critical. No doubt, the new state laws and government advisories will create tension between those who continue to bully, hate and discriminate, and the students who genuinely want to be themselves.
Tragically, California remains in the bottom quartile for student achievement data. We lost the mantle of being in the top tier of states several decades ago. This is the goal we should aspire to once again.
To accomplish this lofty goal will take a Herculean effort and collective plan. Proposition 13 has wreaked havoc on our K-12 system. We are currently 49th in per-student funding. In addition, California has the nation’s largest class sizes and nurse, counselor, librarian and administrative ratios to students.
High achievement is connected to how children feel about themselves in the classroom. Achieving at or above grade level in all academic subjects, while being free of discrimination or fear of bullying in each and every classroom, is the ticket for success in California and in Santa Clara County.
Our work is cut out for us, but I am more hopeful with the initiation of new common core assessments and local control funding formulas. I congratulate Cassidy Lynn Campbell on her groundbreaking achievement for all students.
Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.