Educating Compton: Race, Taxes, and Schools in Southern California’s Most Notorious Suburb

Comptonhigh-thumb-630x472-78800[For more on Compton and its complex demographic change see an earlier ToM piece, “Compton as the Bellwether for Urban America”]

“I want [my children] to have more success in life,” Ismenia Guzman told an L.A. Weekly journalist in 2010. “I want to change the cycle … I want them to have more than I have,” Guzman, mother of two, one a first grader at Compton’s McKinley Elementary and the other a student attending Watts Charter High School, succinctly summarized the goals of Parent Revolution as it attempted to reform Compton’s troubled grade school. 1

Parent Revolution, a product of the Los Angeles Parents Union, organized disgruntled Compton parents frustrated over McKinley’s poor performance. The school’s Academic Performance Index (API), a measure used by California to determine effectiveness and quality of instruction, scored a miserly 658, placing it in the bottom 10 percent of all California schools. 2 Perhaps even worse, a 2010 state audit showed that less than 25 percent of its students met state reading and math standards. 3

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act set aside $100 billion for education reform, specifically earmarking $4.3 billion for the Obama administration’s controversial Race to the Top program. For states to receive those federal funds, they needed to demonstrate an expansion of “high stakes accountability policies including charter school conversions, and test based accountability,” notes Emily Straus, Freedonia University history professor and author of “Death of a Suburban Dream: Race and Schools in Compton, CA.” Largely as a result, Sacramento officials passed the California “parent trigger law” by the slimmest of margins — one vote — hoping ultimately to cash in on the federal bonanza of education reform dollars.

In essence, the law enables parents, based on the results from test scores, to pull the metaphorical “trigger” on their children’s schools, which then in theory enacts one of four outcomes: the establishment of a charter school, replacing staff and enabling parents to oversee aspects of budgeting and staffing, maintaining the school but replacing the principal, or closing the school all together thereby farming out its students to nearby educational facilities. 4 Parent Revolution and their supporters opted for door number one, and though their initial efforts failed, the 2010 Compton Parent Revolution/Parent Trigger controversy provides a valuable window into the city’s education history, the evolution of its Latino-African American relations, and the new political reality of today’s “City of Compton.”
Problems from the Beginning

In the late nineteenth century, Compton incorporated as an independent city. In their zeal for local control and desire to resist outside influence, Compton’s residents largely rejected the idea of industry and manufacturing within the town’s boundaries. This decision proved to be critical in regard to the city’s future finances — very little industry ever settled in Compton, thereby depriving the suburb of valuable tax revenue. 5 While the city’s modest affordable homes made it a prime destination for working class Angelenos, its lack of industry and relatively anemic business district resulted in a tax regime that ranked as one of the highest in all of L.A. County.

Well before incorporation Compton had embraced education, first establishing a one room school house and later a two story school for grades one through eight. In 1896, Compton added a high school, even though at the time the state did not yet provide for funding secondary education. 6 Decades later, as its population bulged, other high schools followed: Centennial in 1953 and Dominguez in 1957.

Unfortunately, even with the passage of legislation that mandated annual state and county funding of public education, Compton’s small tax base plagued its school finances. When the Great Depression and a 1933 earthquake struck the Los Angeles area, the town struggled economically and its educational facilities collapsed, figuratively and literally. Without the resources to rebuild its infrastructure, Compton’s leaders approved new bonds for construction that placed its budget squarely in the red. 7 By the end of the decade Compton’s tax rates for large school districts ranked among the highest, and in 1940 it could claim the dubious distinction of establishing the steepest rate among Los Angeles’s forty five municipalities. 8

Compton Union High School after the earthquake of March 10, 1933 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Compton Union High School after the earthquake of March 10, 1933 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Post World War II Compton

During and immediately after World War II, Compton and the surrounding areas boomed as manufacturing and aeronautics provided employment. However, Compton leaders avoided annexing industrial areas, choosing instead to incorporate residential tracks to maintain the suburb’s bedroom community status, which failed to improve municipal revenues. This loss of revenue proved critical, since between 1940 and 1950 Compton schools experienced the largest enrollment increase in all of California. In 1954, by a slim margin of 31 votes, Compton voters approved the maximum tax rate allowed by law; 9 the tax rate would only grow worse in the late 1950s and 60s. 10

For many working class whites Compton represented a true step toward the suburban ideal. The same would be true of its small but growing African American population, which had increased to 4.5 percent in 1940 up from virtually zero ten years before. “[L]iving in Compton in the fifties and sixties signaled a successful step toward economic prosperity,” former Mayor Omar Bradley reminisced. By 1964 roughly 40 percent of the city’s population was black. 11

As in many parts of Los Angeles County, whites resisted school integration in Compton, sometimes resorting to violence. Some white elected leaders sacrificed educational goals to those aimed at resisting integration, resulting in a school system further riddled with inefficiencies. In 1967 African Americans gained control of the city council, and two years later Douglass Dollarhide emerged victorious as Compton’s first black mayor. Nationally, the city came to be seen as a symbol of black power, and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times spoke of it as a case study for black political leadership.

The Parent Trigger

While the newly arrived black population expanded, Compton’s small but long standing Latino community also grew. By the mid 1970s, Latino percentage of the population increased to about 14 percent, and in 1980 to 21 percent. These changes became clearly visible in the schools: by 1985, 33 percent of Compton Unified’s student body was Latino, and in 1991 over 50 percent.

In this context, schools became a source of division. In the 1970s, community activists demanded officials improve upon and expand school curriculum, and also to hire more Latino teachers and administrators. Only with federal and state prodding in the late 1970s and early 1980s did the system begin adequately meeting requirements. 12 Still, officials continued to ignore complaints about hiring processes — the district employed only one Latino out of a total of 38 principals. Only six percent of Compton Unified’s teachers were Latino American.

McKinley Elementary served as a focal point in the 1990s when one quarter of its students boycotted the school’s first day. Leaders like Frank Madrid labeled the district racist, and alleged that African American administrators refused to take their Latino students seriously, if they considered them at all. Other activists compared Compton to the Deep South at mid-century: “In Mississippi, they didn’t want to educate blacks in the ’50s, and in the 90s, Compton doesn’t want to educate Latinos.” 13 A 1998 U.S. Department of Education report on Compton Unified confirmed protesters’ allegations finding that Latino students faced “racial discrimination and harassment.”

Parents of McKinley Elementary School demand that Compton Unified honors the parent trigger policy, in 2011 | Still frame from 'We the People' documentary
Parents of McKinley Elementary School demand that Compton Unified honors the parent trigger policy, in 2011 | Still frame from ‘We the People’ documentary

Yet for all the divisiveness, in recent years, Compton Unified and the city itself seem to have salved some of these conflicts. Parent Revolution’s 15 Compton school parent organizers consisted of members from the city’s black and Latino communities; still, some criticized the organization for its Bill and Melinda Gates connected deep pockets, outsider status, and friendships with controversial education reformers like former Washington D.C. school chancellor and teacher union nemesis Michelle Rhee.

Ultimately McKinley’s PTA leadership rejected Parent Revolution, arguing that the organization’s signatures lacked legitimacy, a point that Compton Unified and the courts would confirm. Less generous Comptonites labeled Parent Revolution “astroturf,” a charge that articulated fears of once again losing control of their own schools to organizations with no organic relationship to the suburb. For some residents, rejecting the anti-trigger law became a badge of hometown pride. At one school district board meeting opponents chanted “Compton! Compton!”

With that said, the Parent Trigger controversy forced a conversation and brought the plight of Compton Unified back into the public sphere. Though rejected, soon after Celerity Educational Group opened the first charter school in Compton, just blocks away from McKinley. Trigger laws gained popularity in other school districts outside of California. By August of 2012, seven other states adopted trigger laws, emphasizing the new mantra of 21st century education reform: charters, “competitive markets and individual choice.” Though to be fair, the overall effectiveness of charter schools continues to be debated.

Compton Today and Tomorrow

Recent elections have ushered in promising political change in Compton that perhaps will improve its schools and bridge its remaining cultural divides. By 2010, 65 percent of its residents identified as Latino, and as of 2012, 75 percent of its school system’s students the same; yet not a single Latino American held an elected municipal office. The June 2013 election of Isaac Galvan to city council marked Compton’s first elected Latino American political figure, and has raised hopes of a more inclusive future. 14

At the same time, Aja Brown, former urban planner and USC alum, assumed the office of Mayor. Much like Galvan, her first year has been marked by optimism and a clear effort to overcome past divisions. Brown did not rise to mayor on the strength of black voters alone. Local civic leader Mohammed Martinez encouraged Latino voters to come out in support of Brown. “She was the only elected official to come out and meet us … Right there she commanded the respect of the black and brown communities.” Apparently, such endorsements helped, Brown defeated former Mayor Omar Bradley by a margin of 2-1.

Of course, no amount of optimism or economic renewal can save Compton by itself. Compton school teacher Stephany Ortega, a Brown supporter, points out that failure to improve the city’s educational infrastructure will undermine all other efforts since in the end, “people will want to move to a place where children can get a good education.” While a formal education agenda for Compton Unified has yet to materialize, Brown has made telling comments that suggest a more inclusive approach. “We really have to make sure … that we teach Spanish to African American kids,” she told Donnell Alexander in February. Alexander noted that such statements in the past “might have made the old guard’s heads explode.” 15 Moreover, she has supported Compton Unified’s efforts to reduce truancy. Last year the school district reported a roughly 1.5% increase in attendance, translating into “57,326 days in school for Compton’s students and an increase of $2 million in state funding for the district,” noted the mayor in a May Op-ed. 16

Brown frames Compton’s future much like that of another once downtrodden community, New York’s Brooklyn, that until recently most people associated it with “crime and blight and deterioration. But now, in just about a seven-year period of change, they think of ‘new’ and ‘fresh,’ and kinda trendy and swanky.” The last time anyone spoke of Compton with hope, note historians Straus and Josh Sides, was journalist Richard Elman’s 1967 book, “Ill at Ease in Compton.” Afterward, the public image of Compton hewed closer to depictions like Compton Police Chief, Bruce Henderson’s, memoir, “Ghetto Cops,” or the albums of NWA and films of John Singleton. 17

Perhaps, Brown, Galvan, and improved relations between its Latino and black communities point to a return to the imperfect but promise filled working class days of old, though this time minus the racism and segregation. “I believe that Compton is on the cusp of a great transformation,” Brown asserted in February and indeed perhaps it is.


1 Patrick Range McDonald, “Compton’s Parent Trigger,” L.A. Weekly, December 9, 2010
2 Ibid.
3 Emily Straus, Death of a Suburban Dream: Race and Schools in Compton, CA, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 220-222.
4 Patrick Range McDonald, “Compton’s Parent Trigger,” L.A. Weekly, December 9, 2010.
5 Straus, Death of a Suburban Dream, 16, 20
6 Ibid, 21-23.
7 Ibid, 21 – 23, 35-36, 38. “Due to the combination of preexisting bonds and those issued for reconstruction after the earthquake,” points out Straus, “the district was almost $1 million in the red, a deficit it had to pay from the proceeds of taxes on only $12 million of assessed valuation.”
8 Ibid, 38.
9 Ibid, 66, 99. In 1954, they doubled their previous tax obligation from $.30 per $100 assessed to $.60 per $100;
10 Hillary Jenks, “Seasoned Long Enough in Concentration: Suburbanization and Transnational Citizenship in Southern California’s South Bay,” Journal of Urban History, 40.1 (2013): 16. As noted by Hillary Jenks, four years later it amounted to $.98 of every $100 assessed and by the 1960s over $1. In comparison, nearby Gardena was $.80 of every $100 in 1958 and $.70 of every $100 in 1968.
11 Straus, Death of a Suburban Dream, 94.
12 Ibid, 163.
13 Ibid, 200.
14 Haya El Nasser, “Demographic Shift, Compton’s New Latino Majority”, Aljazeera America, October 24, 2013 accessed July 12, 2014
15 Donnell Alexander, “Can This Millennial Mayor Turn Compton Into L.A.’s Next Hot Neighborhood?” Takepart, February 5, 2014, accessed July 17, 2014
16 Aja Brown, “To Combat Truancy, California Should Follow Compton’s Lead,” Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1014, accessed July 24, 2014,
17 Straus, Death of a Suburban Dream, 144

This article appeared originally in the Intersections column at KCET Departures in August 2013.