We were among the many reporters and stakeholders packed into a small hearing room at the Texas Capitol last Wednesday to hear testimony on the State Board of Education from a host of witnesses before the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. While the nation scoffs at Texas for allowing our SBOE to become a stomping ground (con dinosaurs!) of ideologues, we in San Antonio can at least say, “Hey, we tried.”
SA-based state representatives Trey Martinez Fischer (MALC chair), David Leibowitz, and Ruth Jones McClendon all attended, and local academics, activists, advocates, and teachers occupied 12 of the 28 testimony slots during the nine-hours-long hearing, which was held in part as a reaction to the SBOE’s decision to end public testimony before many of these same stakeholders had a chance to speak before it.
Several of the speakers, like LULAC president Rosa Rosales, came to vent about the treatment minorities received in the social-studies standards slated for official recommendation in May. In the ideological rope-pull that passes for crafting educational standards during SBOE meetings, several media outlets shocked the nation by reporting that the Board passed amendments removing Thomas Jefferson from a list of Enlightenment thinkers, amping up the importance of the Conservative movement, and most egregiously to us here, removing Tejano Alamo defenders. “Now, we’re here in 2010, and we’re still fighting for inclusion,” mourned Rosales.
However, other testimony, including that of Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott, challenged the notion that the conservative bloc of seven on the 15-member board actively whitewashed history. Commissioner Scott noted that Jefferson had never been included in the Enlightenment thinker section of Texas’s social-studies standards, and is included elsewhere. He noted most states, “even Virginia, home of Monticello,” didn’t put Jefferson on this list.
The SBOE’s true crime according to many professors and teachers isn’t in the deletions, but the additions. In fact, many deletions corrected repetition in the bloated standards. Currently, the proposed revisions for high-school social studies fill 77 pages. Dr. Francisco de la Teja, a Texas State professor who served as an expert reviewer for social studies, warned that “the impossibly large set of standards” could cause more teaching to the test, as these standards dictate not only what must be in the textbook, but also on the state’s standardized tests. Much of the bloat comes not from expert panels, and we use “expert” very lightly here, but as amendments submitted after the panels’ conclusions. We wrote last week of one such amendment (discovered by Democratic SBOE District 3 candidate Michael Soto) written by former SBOE chairman Don McLeroy, who lifted it from a UCLA graduate student and (shudder) Wikipedia.com. Meanwhile, a number of professional educators complained they felt their input was ignored.
To the more than 23 MALC members present at the hearing (all Democrats right now, but ostensibly a bipartisan caucus), the amendment process, like much of the SBOE’s actions, smacked of arrogance. And if there’s one thing legislators can’t stand, it’s anyone but themselves acting like know-it-alls. “This process needs fixing, bud,” Leibowitz advised Scott, setting the tone for the rest of the day.
Particularly annoying to the lawmakers was the lack of a single SBOE member present to explain their actions. The East Side’s McClendon attended hearings long enough to ask Commissioner Scott for the whereabouts of SBOE chairwoman Gail Lowe, a member of the conservative bloc. “Many of my questions should be directed to her. Because this is so important to the people of Texas, maybe she’s in the audience somewhere?” asked McLendon, elegantly arching an eyebrow. No dice.
After the hearings, we spoke with Martinez Fischer, who appeared flabbergasted that the SBOE had far fewer standardized procedures for passing educational guidelines than his colleagues do for passing laws.
Though the legislature will not convene until January, Martinez Fischer sounded confident of change once the November SBOE elections are held (MALC heard from candidates Soto and District 9’s sensible Republican Thomas Ratliff, both odds-on favorites to win in November). Even if the new board decides not to override the textbooks, he believes MALC members, fellow Democrats, and fiscally conservative GOP legislators will build a consensus strong enough to challenge the SBOE’s investment of $800 million (in taxpayer dollars) in the textbooks, and rein in the SBOE. “We never intended politicians to write curriculum,” said Martinez Fischer.
Early last week as the BP disaster brewed offshore, the International Women’s Day March and the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition took their death match against the City’s parade-ordinance fees to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The sprawling epic unfolded before a panel of three judges tasked with deciding whether to remand the Coalition’s lawsuit back to federal district court here in San Antonio. In which case the Coalition may finally get to explain to a jury why it believes the City’s parade fees and policies, approved in late 2007, violate our First Amendment rights.
San Antonio Free Speech Coalition supporters arrived in New Orleans the Sunday prior to oral arguments via a cushy charter bus to drum up community support for their plight. That wasn’t too difficult since among the wounds that plagued post-Katrina New Orleans was a surprising leap in “escort fees” charged by the New Orleans Police Department to that city’s beloved Second Line processions. Between 2005 and 2006, the police-presence fees assessed to these public parades shot up from $1,200 to $3,790, claimed the ultimately successful ACLU lawsuit brought against the City of New Orleans in late 2006. Three years ago, almost to the day of this oral argument, a federal judge found in favor of the ACLU and reduced the fee to just above its 2005 level.
“It really slapped the hand of the City and the New Orleans Police Department,” said Michelle Longino, one of the plaintiffs. “The City just kind of caved.”
Wendy O’Neill, a New Orleans resident and social-justice activist with Safe Streets, Strong Communities, told the Coalition group, “That’s a parallel.” The Second Line lawsuit has strengthened Esperanza Peace and Justice Center Executive Director Graciela Sanchez’s resolve to support the Coalition’s argument all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. “This is a trend that’s happening nationally,” she said of the parade-ordinance fees she seeks to revoke.
Searching for yet more parallels, Sanchez and several other members of the Coalition maneuvered their charter bus last Monday through the narrow streets of Treme, the Ninth Ward, and other New Orleans neighborhoods on a sort of social-justice tour led by the knowledgeable and charismatic Viola Washington, executive director of the Welfare Rights Organization. They visited small organizations like O’Neill’s that are working to craft progressive policies for policing, juvenile justice, poverty, and equality. Robert Chisom, a self-described “street agitator” for civil rights spoke to the group as they lunched in the shade of the First African-American Catholic Church, located in Treme.
“I appreciate y’all being in this neighborhood,” Chisom said. “I think the work you’re doing is crucial.”
Many other people visited by the Coalition Monday showed up on Tuesday to support the San Antonians during a press conference and in the neo-classical courthouse where the oral arguments for their parade ordinance were heard. A decision in the Coalition’s suit could come as early as this summer.
Online in QueBlog: Fifth Circuit Judge Fortunato Benavides grills the City; critiques the District Court’s brief opinion.
Last Wednesday’s Alamo Colleges trustees debate brought together all but one of the candidates running for two positions on the board, which governs the five schools in the county-wide system. The usual suspects were represented — a former city councilman, a professor, a lawyer — but an uninformed onlooker might have been surprised to see two faces among them almost untouched by age. David Alan Rodriguez and Tyler Ingraham are student candidates.
“`If I were elected`, I’d be the only person who’d been to a community college in the last 25 years. … There’s plenty of other perspectives already represented on the board. There’s people who are professors, who are administrators, local business owners, secondary school teachers,” Ingraham told the QueQue. But no students.
Ingraham is a 22-year-old political-science major at St. Mary’s University and a San Antonio College transfer student. His mother is a high-school teacher, and he cites his upbringing as a strong influence on his decision to run. But the real catalyst came when his friend and campaign manager Robert Pohl wrote an article on the district’s well-publicized inner turmoil for the Current `See “Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie is … ,” January 13, 2010`.
“So he did all this research,” Ingraham explained, “and we talked about it, and he kept sending me stuff, and it just became apparent that there were severe issues here.” Issues like the vote of no confidence in Chancellor Leslie issued by four of the colleges’ faculties after Leslie attempted to move the district to a single-accreditation model.
Ingraham is one of four candidates running for the District 1 seat, and his competition is steep. Joe Alderete, former city councilman and seasoned politician, is the most well-known face in the election. He’s joined by Thomas Hoy, a former SAC administrator, and Rowland Martin, an adjunct professor at SAC.
On the other end of the stage last week sat District 7 candidate David Rodriguez, his responses characterized by speed and energy. Rodriguez is 31, also a political-science major, currently studying at SAC. “I actually went to the current board and spoke. I just felt there was too many questions but not enough answers,” Rodriguez said. “And when you go to people, either people don’t know or that’s just how it is, and they try to shut you up with that. So I felt, do what everybody says — get out there and make a difference.”
Rodriguez currently works as a DJ to pay his way through school (call him DJ Caliente on weekends), but he has 12 years of experience in retail management. The District 7 position is currently held by attorney Blakely Latham Fernandez, who’s running for reelection following her appointment last year to an unexpired term. After meeting with Fernandez, Richard Knight, treasurer for Ingraham’s campaign, dropped out of the District 7 race and endorsed Fernandez.
“Nothing against my opponent,” Rodriguez said. “I think she’s awesome, but I think she’s corporate. And a school system isn’t corporate. It isn’t a luxury business. It’s an institution of higher learning.”
The third candidate in the District 7 race is David A. Whitley, who missed the debate due to a bout of the flu. Whitley is a SAC student working toward a liberal-arts degree, but his perspective is slightly different than the other two student voices in this election. Thirty-eight years old, he is the manager of San Antonio Air Conditioning, a job he’s held for 13 years.
“I think the combination of my business skills — budgeting skills, things that go into the board — and my love for education and being presently a part of the system is a good fit,” he said.
He also emphasizes the importance of nontraditional students like himself to the future of AC: “I think that it’s important to embrace the fact that there are a lot of students past that normal age. They have children, they have full-time jobs. Working on accommodating those people, and marketing to those people … I think that’s the backbone of raising our revenue and giving us more money in the budget to do things we want to do.”
Whitley is unique among the three student candidates as the only one who supports single accreditation. “If we could eliminate some of the administrative costs by bringing it together as one unit, centralizing that administrative cost, perhaps we could then, if not lower tuition, at least keep it where it is,” he said.
The candidates acknowledge that finding time between classes and jobs to be involved is difficult, but they’re seeking a balance between their dual roles as student and citizen. “No one’s going to fix our problems for us,” Ingraham said. “And so, the earlier all of us pull our heads out of our asses the better. We need to be engaged, we need to be out there, we need to be taking part in political life.”
The elections for Districts 1 and 7 will be held May 8. See bexar.org/elections/20100508EVMap.pdf for voting locations and info. •
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