Equality and Fairness for All

My mom, Chillie Pace, was the first activist I ever met. But she doesn’t walk picket lines or march down the middle of the street. She doesn’t yell into bullhorns. (My mother could silence my five siblings and me with one look. She never needed a bullhorn.)

Whenever I whined about my homework, mom would tell me that every piece of knowledge could be put to good use. She would say, “That’s a key. You never know when that key might open a door for you.” Some activists march. Others help us find the keys to open doors.

As the first Latina to head the National Education Association, for me, Hispanic Heritage Month is about paying tribute to the many people who opened doors for us. It’s also about acknowledging that today, we must keep pushing, pulling, and even kicking down those doors so that all young people can walk through them. And that means ensuring that all our kids — no matter where they live — have access to the best public education possible.

In Rabble Rousers: Fearless Fighters for Social Justice (Agitadores: Luchadores Valientes por la Justicia), I write about people who unabashedly stood up for their beliefs. They include young immigrant activist Gaby Pacheco, Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú, who advocates for Guatemala’s indigenous peoples, and José Martí, a 19th-century philosopher and writer known as the “Apostle of Cuban Independence.” One of my heroes, Dolores Huerta, honored me by writing the book’s foreword.

Huerta worked briefly as an elementary school teacher in California, and many of her students were the children of farm workers. They lived in poverty, often without decent food, housing or medical care. That sparked her desire to improve the students’ living conditions and their parents’ working conditions. With César Chávez, Huerta organized thousands of field laborers into a union in the ’60s and ’70s, the United Farm Workers. It was instrumental in winning a voice for these poor, mostly Mexican, men and women.

But of course, the struggle for equality and fairness continues in all sectors of society. For me and other educators, this struggle is clearly visible in our nation’s public schools. Addressing the disparities in school districts is therefore a central mission of the NEA.

Most funding for public school districts comes from local and state sources and is heavily dependent on property taxes. This means the most important factor in the quality of a student’s education is his or her ZIP code. The districts with the highest poverty receive, on average, $1,200 less per student than the wealthiest districts. And districts that serve the largest numbers of students of color receive about $2,000 less per student than districts that serve the fewest students of color. In other words, Latina/o kids are often consigned to districts with the worst funding.

More money means more experienced and higher-paid teachers; the latest and best technology; smaller class sizes; and plenty of extracurricular and enrichment activities. Less money means teachers with lower salaries and little experience; larger and more chaotic classes; and little money for enrichment programs.

We are sending a very chilling message to our children. We’re saying that some of them matter more than others. We’re lowering our expectations for what they can achieve. Ultimately, they’re getting the message loud and clear that they simply don’t matter much. This obviously has an impact on their future, and ours.

Children in wealthier school districts have every opportunity to flourish. That’s what we demand for every child. Nothing less. We must, as a nation, gather the political will to throw out the formulas that result in unfair school funding and create progressive formulas to change the equation for impoverished school districts — and the students who live in them.

In the foreword to Rabble Rousers, Dolores Huerta writes that the stories “depict how one does not have to have a lot of money or power to create change.” These leaders show “the power of the person, no matter what barriers may stand in the way.”

This Hispanic Heritage Month, think about the power we all have to make a difference. Join the NEA in demanding equitable funding for public schools. This is how you can help our kids find the keys to open doors.

Originally published at latinastyle.com.