The Belief Gap: When People Stop Believing that Our Kids Can Learn, Succeed, Achieve

The following is an excerpt of prepared remarks by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the LULAC National Legislative Conference and Awards Gala, at which he was awarded the LULAC National Public Service Award. 
Is there a feeling among some people that a high-quality education for our children is optional instead of a necessity? When I hear people talk about retreating from high learning standards, that’s the belief gap. They will condemn our kids to second-class lives. They say they don’t all need to go to college. Just send them to work. They’re talking about weakening accountability and rolling back testing to keep parents in the dark when it comes to educational quality. They’re talking about taking away the protections for our kids. They’re talking about letting states shift funding from poor schools to wealthier ones—all in the name of local control. Now, I am a former mayor. I like local control. But I also know that if you leave everything to states and districts they won’t always protect kids. We have a long history of allowing kids to slip through the cracks. So when I hear people talk about eliminating the federal role and sending everything back to the states— that’s the belief gap. They don’t want be accountable for educating all kids—including the children of immigrants who are just learning to speak English. Today, those immigrant children are living in every state of America. One of the fastest growing states for Latinos is North Carolina. Without high expectations and real accountability, is North Carolina going to spend what they need to insure that every child learns? The state already underfunds education. As the population of minorities grows, the generosity of taxpayers declines—and today, for the first time in history, we have more children of color in the public school system than white students. Meanwhile, 30 states are still funding schools below pre-recession levels. Today in my hometown, there’s a battle underway between those who think parents have the right to find the best school for their child, and those who think everything is fine and parents don’t deserve those choices. I’m here in Washington, D.C., this week meeting with national Latino organizations to talk about education and what we need to do to get better. Because we’re not where we need to be. One in four Latino kids still doesn’t finish high school. Just 22 percent of Latino adults today have a two-year or four-year college degree—compared to 60 percent of Asians, 48 percent of Whites and 31 percent of Blacks. Now, the good news is that Latino college enrollment is skyrocketing. Today a young Latino is twice as likely to be in college as a decade ago. But we’re still not there and the question is why? Do we believe our children can learn? Do our teachers believe it? Do our parents and kids believe it? Or is there a belief gap? Why should we have to fight for better schools? That should be our right. We have thousands of children trapped in schools that just don’t work. Why would we accept that? So it falls to us to raise a voice in support of a parent’s right to know if their child is on track—and a parent’s right to find the best school for their kid. And a student’s right to go to college regardless of whether his parents have lived here for 10 generations or for 10 years. They’re Americans and they deserve a shot at the American Dream. To me—education is the defense industry of the 21st century. Education is the civil rights issue of our time. Education is the economic strategy for a stronger American. A quality education is not optional for our kids. It’s an imperative. You and I and millions of others all across America need to constantly remind leaders at every level that when it comes to our kids: You better believe. Believe they can learn. Believe they can achieve. And believe they can succeed.
Antonio Villaraigosa is the former Mayor of Los Angeles and the former Speaker of the California Assembly, who began his career as a local labor leader with the United Teachers Los Angeles. He has extensive experience in state and local government, business, education, organized labor and the nonprofit sector. Mr. Villaraigosa holds a B.A. in History from UCLA and a J.D. from the Peoples College ...

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