Kevin: Hispanic and Latino students account for one-fourth of the students in our nation's public schools. And the 2020 census shows that they're the fastest-growing population in the United States. But what do the census results really mean for America's educators? Are we doing enough to prepare for an influx of Hispanic and Latino students? And how can we ensure that these students feel welcome when they walk through our school doors? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: To find out, I'm joined by Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Thomas Saenz first joined MALDEF in 1993 and has been champion of Hispanic and Latino rights ever since. He led challenges to California's Anti-Immigrant Proposition 187, as well as Proposition 227, an English-only education initiative. Mr. Saenz also served for 20 years on the Los Angeles County Board of Education. Tom, thanks so much for joining us. We're very pleased to have you on "What I Want to Know." And to begin with, I wanna ask you some background questions because you once coined the expression that your family situation was one where you didn't cross the border, but the border crossed you, and that you had family members from Spain and Mexico. Talk a little bit about your folks and their background, and particularly, which is most striking, their commitment to your education.
Thomas: My mother, who is very intellectually curious and knowledgeable person, and nonetheless because of when she was going to school was kept from going on to higher education. For women at the time, even kept from going on to what was then called business school, but for women, as you know, that was basically secretarial school, but because of her race, she was kept from that. And I think that's what drove her long-term commitment for my brother and me to ensuring that our educational opportunities were at their height.
My father was born in Los Angeles and it's his side of the family, particularly his mother that I have said that by family reputation, the border crossed them because they had been in the LA area since before it was part of the United States, since it was part of Mexico. His father was from Southern New Mexico, right on the border. So lots of passage between Sonora, Chihuahua, and the state of New Mexico. And my father went to parochial schools until his last year of high school when he went to one of the stereotypical East LA high schools. But the clear expectation for my brother and me was that we would do well in school or else there would be consequences at home. And that we would go on to college.
Kevin: It's so fascinating to me that so many...in your parent's generation, my parent's generation, particularly minorities, you know, folks who come from families that have been discriminated against, they understood the value of an education, and they fought for their kids. I was struck by a story I read where when you were enrolled in one school and you were a great student, but your mother had to intervene because they wanted to put you in a lower algebra class and she insisted, and wouldn't leave until they put you in the right class. The power of that influence had to impact you greatly.
Thomas: And that is a story that I tell often. I was skipping eighth grade because my teachers decided that they couldn't challenge me at my elementary school anymore. And we were meeting with a counselor to enroll in classes, and he looked at my racial background, I believe. Looked at the school that I came from, which was the most heavily Latino elementary school in that district, and said that he wanted to try me out in the mid-level algebra course, not the high-level algebra course. And it was my mother who insisted. My father and I, I think were ready to accept the counselor's advice, but my mother insisted she would not leave his office until he enrolled me in the higher-level algebra course. Made a difference, certainly to where I ended up. The track was such that I would never have gotten to calculus had I not been enrolled in that higher-level algebra course. But it certainly taught me a lesson.
My mother, despite not having a college degree, had been involved in the schools long enough to know enough to see what was going on and insist that the path would be different. But I recognize that there are far, far too many kids, particularly kids from minority backgrounds, black or brown, whose parents are not in that position. And who in a similar circumstance, would've done what I think my father and I would've done, which was to accept the advice of the counselor perceived as due respect and with enough knowledge to make the right decision, even though it's quite clear to me in that circumstance, he was not.
Kevin: Yeah. And speaking of those flaws, I'm reminded of the expression, "The more things change, the more they stayed the same." We've made a lot of progress, but the story you just shared with your gray hair and stories that I could share with my gray beard have a lot in common with some of what we see today. And that's in the wake of the fact that the Hispanic and Latino population is growing by leaps and bounds in this country. According to the 2020 census, half of the population growth in this country, in the United States, was in the Hispanic and Latino population. And now one-fourth of all American school-aged students are Hispanic and Latino students. What does the census tell us about this new reality and how can we avoid what you experienced in terms of the acceptability?
Thomas: I think the story is not just in the magnitude of the numbers that you've described and how they play out in public schools because the Latino population nationwide is younger than other populations. So there are more school-aged kids in the Latino population, and even more preschool-aged kids in the Latino population in comparison to others. So what you're describing is gonna become even more pronounced in our public schools in future years. But I think the other story is how broadly distributed across the country the Latino population is now. And that's been true and going on for the last quarter-century or more. Certainly, when MALDEF, the organization that I have the honor of leading was founded in 1968, you could fairly describe the Latino population in the United States as regional. Concentrated in the Southwest from Texas to California, with pockets in Chicago, New York City, and South Florida, but a regional minority population.
But what the census confirms is that Latinos are now present in significant numbers in every region and virtually every state in the country. And that is the challenge because states like California, states like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona that have long had significant student populations from the Latino community are better prepared to address some of those issues. Far from perfect, there's still lots of work to be done as you know, even in those systems. But I have concerns about some of the systems where this is a newer phenomenon, having significant numbers of Latino kids, states in the Southeast, states in portions of the Midwest, states in the Northeast. Where there is not that experience, you have to be concerned about whether those schools are prepared to take the steps necessary to ensure that they're serving that growing population.
There is, as you know, this long tradition in this country of local control, local control, local control. Down at the school board, local district level, and some of these districts are quite small, as you know. So really this longstanding loyalty to local control has some positive elements, but too often, it means that we are not able to ensure a more uniform experience and, in particular, a more uniform attentiveness to addressing civil rights issues in education.
Kevin: I couldn't help but think about what you, me, many others went through with the Common Core discussion. Whenever you talk about, you know, using the national, not just bully pulpit, but federal legislation to ensure that people's rights are protected, that schools are accountable. We had 48 or 49 states agree to Common Core before the fear-based politics kicked in. How do we reconcile that?
Thomas: I think it was a troubling, troubling occurrence in the end because of exactly what you described, the fear, this over-loyalty to local control, and maximizing local control became a real problem. And it's not reality because the truth is today, many, many kids are gonna start their education in one state and they're gonna end up moving to another state. Now, 50, 60, 70 years ago, that was far less true. But today, it means we need a more uniform national educational system. And that means that things like Common Core are critical.
We've got to get back to the ability to ensure greater uniformity and not be afraid of it because it is to the benefit of kids, not just the kids who move, but kids across the board. Goes back to something recognized as you know in Brown versus Board of Education, which is that our public schools are really what bring us together as a country, as people. It is that experience shared across boundaries of race, across boundaries of income, across boundaries of geography. It is that shared experience that unites us as a people when there are so many other things working to tear us apart.
Kevin: It seems like there are more and more even in the wake of the pandemic, more and more of these kind of, sort of, single-bullet efforts to throw a dart in the face of equality and equitable treatment. How do we deal with that?
Thomas: The fact is that what the pandemic forced upon our public education system, namely remote learning has had racially disparate effects on our student body. And we now have to engage with real creativity, but most importantly, with real clear direction to address those inequities. We really have to be talking nationwide about what compensatory education is essential, because it is essential, to make up for what occurred over the last year and a half because of the pandemic. We've got to acknowledge the racial disparities, and we've got to invest our efforts in a way that addresses those disparities. If you don't call out the problem and define it accurately, you're never going to solve it. And this reluctance to accurately and openly talk about inequity is an ongoing problem.
Kevin: The DREAM Act, DACA, how do you see that playing out?
Thomas: I think it's absolutely clear that huge super majorities of people across the country support providing some permanent status and pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and other students similarly situated. It's an extension of access to the K through 12 schools that you suggested. And it's true what history of MALDEF is about ensuring access for undocumented students to our public K through 12 schools. The extension is we then need those kids to have the opportunity to go on and get a higher education and contribute to our economy, and our society, and our leadership in the ways that they can. So I think it will be solved. The problem right now is this issue which should be bipartisan. If you look at the levels of support in the general populace across the country, it should be bipartisan, so far is not.
Kevin: I'll do the wave the magic wand. Just wave a magic wand, Tom Saenz is in charge. He's designing the governor structure for Los Angeles county schools. What kind of things would you put in place, particularly that are different?
Thomas: Well, I think there's two issues. One is at the very core of who is our governing body. And as you know, when I worked for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, I worked with him in ways that many viewed as undermining the governance of LAUSD because it certainly was a challenge to the existing governance system, which was electing school board members to that body. Now two problems with that. The first is a tremendous mismatch that's increasing, given the numbers we've talked about, between the parents of students in schools and who's voting because so many parents are not yet eligible to vote in our elections because they're not citizens yet. And until they're citizens, they will have no voice in the election of those who are then making consequential decisions for their kids.
And the second problem is when you have an election to a body whose charge is limited, in this case to an issue that's extremely important, no one would deny the importance of education, but when it's so limited, you run the danger that those who have direct interest of whatever kind into that system become the major players.
Kevin: We talked about governance structure, when it comes to the acceptability of the growing number of Hispanic and Latino students, I wanna talk to you about moving hearts and minds. So this is what I really wanna know. How do we gain cultural acceptance of Hispanic and Latino students in America's schools?
Thomas: Well, I think it starts with increasing knowledge of that community and its history. The history of Latinos in this country, even though, as I said, 50-some years ago, we were a regional population, it's deep and long, and it is full of commitment to the United States. So that's really shared across whether you're a citizen or not, how long your family has been here, how many generations or how many days you've been here. And we need to take that shared commitment and make sure everyone understands it.
There's too many who have demographic fear. So we have to take away that threat with that factual basis, the historical basis of commitment. And I think we also have to ensure that leadership is not seeking to exploit that demographic fear in irresponsible ways. That's what we saw with Donald Trump, but it wasn't new. You mentioned Proposition 187 in California, we saw it with Pete Wilson. He exploited demographic fear of the growing Latino community to secure his own reelection as governor.
Jan Brewer in Arizona used SB 1070, another infamous anti-immigrant measure. She used demographic fear of the growth of Latino population in Arizona to secure her election as governor. She had succeeded to the position when Janet Napolitano left. Donald Trump did the same on a nationwide level. That's why he launched his campaign as you recall in the middle of 2015 with a slur against all Mexican immigrants, that they were criminals, and murderers, and rapists. That was all and that was an ongoing theme that was all about seeking to exploit that demographic fear. We've gotta end that. We've gotta put more of our outreach and education on understanding our common shared philosophies, our common shared commitments to the future.
Kevin: Bottom line, we're all in this together.
Kevin: Thomas Saenz, thank you so much for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
Thomas: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #wiwtk on social media. That's #wiwtk on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Thomas A. Saenz is the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). He first joined MALDEF in 1993 and has been a champion of Hispanic and Latino rights ever since. He led challenges to California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187, as well as Proposition 227, an English-only education initiative. He also served for 20 years on the Los Angeles County Board of Education.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.