I am very much like other Latinas throughout this nation—proud of my Latino heritage, proud of how I grew up, and proud of the work ethic and values my parents taught me. I am also very proud to be in this nation, a country unlike any other for many reasons. Many of us have benefitted from the generosity of democracy, the tenet of equality, the economic opportunity that has long been both an ideal and a magnet. However, I have also seen a public education system that has long
promised hope and equality, but instead offers a discriminatory two-tiered education experience for too many Latino, African-American and Native American children and families. Many of the schools in our communities of color have historically been underfunded and poorly staffed, including in Washington state where I live. We have gone through decades where our schools were segregated from white students and white resources. Hiring minority teachers and administrators has long been a struggle, and it continues to be an issue across the state.
Are We Measuring Up?
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a briefing session for Latino community activists on the University of Washington Bothell's Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) report,
Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities. This report contains some powerful data on how school districts in 50 key U.S. cities are performing with students of color and low-income families as compared to white students. Since students of color and low-income students comprise the majority of public school students, it is imperative that we all be informed and concerned with the progress that is being made with these students groups. The report reveals that there continue to be "persistent achievement and opportunity gaps between racial and socio-economic student groups,” but also points out that while the "inequities are profound, cities can create schools that serve all students well." The ensuing discussion among the participants confirmed that they, too, have seen more problems than solutions for Latino students in Washington. They, too, were concerned that while these problems—such as lack of funding and lack of teacher diversity—disproportionately impact Latinos here, it is no longer an isolated problem that can be contained in our communities. The failure to provide a quality education to
all children in the state of Washington is having and will continue to have a very definite impact on all residents of the state.
We’re Not Just One Issue
While I firmly believe that immigration is a vital issue for Latinos, I also know it is not the
only issue nor the only priority. However, as I watched a recent Democratic presidential debate between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I was struck by their poor responses to the urgent question posed by Shoniqua Kemp, a mother of a two Detroit Public Schools students. Kemp is one of 10 parents suing Detroit public schools to improve abysmal conditions. After describing the lack of accountability in the Detroit system, the poor physical conditions of the schools, the lack of transparency, the unqualified teachers, she asked the following question:
Who’s going to step up? Who’s going to ensure that the policies and procedures are put in place that will ensure and bring forth a successful future for our students—because my daughter cannot wait eight more years for success to take place at your hands.
The responses provided by the two candidates were disappointing and failed to adequately address the issues Kemp raised. And when the moderator asked Clinton if she thought “unions protect bad teachers,” she responded:
I have told my friends at the top of both unions we’ve got to take a look at this because it is one of the most common criticisms. We need to eliminate this criticism.
Bad teaching is only one of many ways public education has failed Latino and African-American students for generations. But note that Clinton says we need to “eliminate the criticism,” as opposed to creating a system to improve the training of teachers and provide more constructive and meaningful evaluations to improve the performance of teachers.
Enough With the Applause Lines
Too many of those seeking office use public education as a political weapon against their opponents or to secure financial support for their campaigns. They speak as though they understand the plight of millions of parents like Kemp, and they mouth the “I understand your plight” lines. Even more offensive, these issues are always served up as if more money is the solution and then everything will be better. The truth is always more complicated. I am hopeful that the conversation sparked at the briefing session I attended will continue, and that it will bring Latinos in Washington state together to put aside our politics and ideology and focus on the present and future of Latino and African-American students. They deserve a quality education, and our society must insure they receive it—for our collective and future well-being.
Maia is a small business owner and Latino leadership advocate based in Olympia, Washington. With both of her parents enlisted in the military, Maia attended more than a dozen public schools across the country being one of the first of her family to earn her four-year degree. She strives to improve the K-12 and higher education policies that will benefit the communities she serves.
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