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Contested Campuses: Politics, race, and the battles over public education in the Greater Los Angeles Area, 1949-1972


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the height of protests and actions by civil rights activists against de facto school segregation in the Los Angeles area, the residents of a group of small cities fought to break away from the Los Angeles City Schools and create a new, independent school district. If established, the district would serve white pupils nearly exclusively, preserving and reinforcing racially segregated schools in the area. Proponents of the plan were residents of the majority white, working class cities just southeast of the city of Los Angeles. Their crusade was a response to the merger of the Los Angeles schools, up until this time comprised of separate elementary and high school districts, into the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). I argue that this movement represented the continuation of a much longer and foundational debate over control of public schools in the U.S. at both the federal and state level. This conflict pitted advocates of a vision of “neighborhood” schools controlled by the communities they served against policy makers who endeavored to create larger school districts in order to exert more control over funding and administration.

This challenge to the LAUSD’s creation was just one of many fights in the decades following World War II in the Greater Los Angeles area over public school district organization and attendance zones. These battles were inextricably tied to larger issues like taxation, control of community institutions, the size and role of state and county government, and racial segregation. As civil rights activists and the state government advanced a version of public schools that were more inclusive and demanded larger-scale, consolidated administration, race became an increasingly important aspect of debates over school district organization in Los Angeles County. The actions of white residents of the region in response to attempts to create larger school districts reveal an often-overlooked grassroots activism connected to an exclusionary notion of smaller-scale school districts based on local control and “community identity.”

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