UnidosUS Texas Strategist Manuel Grajeda Outlines the State of Education in Texas Following the 2020 Elections and Amid the Ongoing Pandemic

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Texas. It’s the second-most populous state in the union after California, and it has one of the highest concentrations of Latinos in its public school system. There are 5,431,910 students enrolled in Texas public schools, and Latinos account for 52.6% (or 2,854,590) of those students. And while it didn’t have any education-specific measures on the 2020 elections ballot, the current politics of the Texas State Legislature could certainly have an impact on the lives of Latino students. In the most recent election, Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives picked up one seat, but the GOP remains the majority in the chamber, as it has for the past 18 years—the last time Democrats held any majorities or statewide positions. What does this mean for socially inclusive programming in the pandemic, what about culturally responsive curriculums?

ProgressReport.co caught up with UnidosUS Texas Strategist Manuel Grajeda to learn more.

UnidosUS Texas Strategist Manuel Grajeda.

Q: We know Texas remained red during this year’s presidential election, but the Biden-Harris win is likely to yield greater emphasis on educational equity within the United States Department of Education. What data do you have on how Latinos voted, and how might they be impacted by President-elect Biden’s pick for U.S. Secretary of Education?

A: Latino votes in Texas went to Biden 2-1, a really wide margin. In South Texas, the majority of Hispanic voters went to Biden but the margins were much smaller than when they voted for Clinton in 2016. Some have wondered if this particular Latino community—many of whom consider themselves Tejanos before they would call themselves Mexican American—had turned out with the same numbers that Clinton got, that Texas might have turned blue. But that’s not accurate. Trump still would have won Texas. Hispanics in the Rio Grande Valley only make up about 15% of Texas Latinos, whereas 60% of the population is located in the five major cities in Texas. Texas went Republican because Trump won the White vote (both men and women) by a wide margin in rural, suburban, and urban communities.

But all this said, the change in administration will surely alter the way we see things run at the U.S. Department of Education, and that will have a big impact on our students in Texas. As our education policy team mentioned in an early story about educational changes at the federal level, it’s likely Biden’s pick for education secretary will push for a more equitable agenda than that of the Trump Administration. For example, outgoing secretary Betsy DeVos spent a lot of her tenure rolling back civil rights protections and diverting public funds into private schools, and we may finally see a push to narrow the reach of for-profit colleges and universities that often target low-income populations.

But Congress has yet to pass another coronavirus relief package following last spring’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. That provided about $34 billion in aid for things like early childcare, adapting to school closures and blended or online learning, emergency tuition and other resources for college students, and $3 billion for state governors to address educational needs not adequately covered through those other funds. Plus, in Texas and all across the United States, we’re anxiously awaiting Georgia’s January 5 runoff elections for U.S. Senate since those will determine which party gains control of the upper branch of the legislature.

Q: Tell us more about what’s happening in education politics at the state level.

A: For decades many Texans have continuously faced economic hardships, including homeowners who have seen their property taxes increase every year. During the 2019 legislative session, the state passed HB 3, which increased state funding in public education. Prior to HB 3, the state wasn’t paying its fair share of the state education budget, putting the burden on local taxpayers to make up the difference. UnidosUS contributed to this fight by advocating for full-day pre-K statewide which was included in the bill and signed into law. We also supported fixes to the school funding formula that would have provided more funding to English learners (ELs) and bilingual classrooms, but those didn’t make it. We did see more funding in dual-language programs which is a positive, but we would have liked to have seen that increased funding also in the EL and bilingual programs.

The upcoming legislative session that begins this January will largely focus on COVID-19’s impact on our schools and it’s imperative that legislators provide solutions for our kids that have fallen through the cracks even further. The pandemic has placed a spotlight and increased inequities that we have known about and been fighting against for years. Many Hispanic students were not provided the resources to attend their online classes and have low attendance rates, are more likely to be exposed to the virus themselves, and have also faced a disproportionate amount of trauma having to say goodbye to loved ones who have died as a result of the pandemic. While Texas Latinos make up about 40% of the state’s population, they make up about 55% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

Q: The coronavirus pandemic not only continues, it’s getting worse. How is the state currently responding the question of schooling in the midst of it?

A: In early November, Texas passed California in COVID-19 cases, and became the first state to pass one million cases, but Governor Abbott continues to oppose any statewide lockdowns and schools continue to be on their own. Remote learning is a failed experiment in Texas for the same reason public education is. The state doesn’t adequately invest in its students, and students who fell through the cracks before are doing more so now. This is similar to the idea that COVID-19 has helped shine light on the disparities that we’ve already known exist in underserved and working class communities.

For example, a recent article in the Texas Tribune notes that the governor’s “hands off” approach has contributed to a breakdown in supply chains for providing students and teachers with the technology they need to engage in online learning. There’s no money to create two groups of teachers—those providing instruction inside of a socially distanced classroom and those providing online instruction. And most districts are still requiring teachers to come into the schools, even if they have special medical petitions showing they’re at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. So just how big of a problem is this? According to the newspaper’s data,  67% of students in Texas are now learning remotely, and the numbers are especially high for students of color—77% in majority Latino districts, 81% in majority Black districts, compared to just 25% in majority White ones.

Q: What role do standardized tests play in identifying these inequities, and are they currently being implemented?

A: From a civil rights perspective, annual assessments required by the Every Student Succeeds Act help to uncover educational inequities and target resources to the schools that need them most. UnidosUS advocates for resuming annual assessments in the 2020–21 school year to gauge the impact of the pandemic on student learning to target support and resources.

Texas House Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) penned a letter with the support of 68 (out of 150) House representatives for the federal mandated standardized test, also known as the STAAR, to be canceled this year. The state has yet to decide how the STAAR exam will be administered and used to rate school districts as the pandemic continues. The test was waived last year. While the test is used for diagnostic purposes and to track, for example, how EL students are doing in the classroom. The test also punishes students who fail it by holding them back from promoting to the next grade. At the moment, the plan is for the tests to take place this year, although fifth and eighth graders are exempt from the pass-to-graduate requirement per Governor Abbott.

Q. At the curriculum level, there are lots of heated debates going on around topics such as sex education, science, and social studies. Can you tell us more about those? Why are those important discussions for Latino families to be following?

A: Last month, the Texas State Board of Education made significant updates of the state’s health and sex education standards for the first time in 20 years. Historically, the state has had an abstinence-based approach to sex ed. The new standards will include teaching about birth-control methods in middle school health classes which are required before students can go on to high school. But unfortunately, Republicans on the State Board of Education stopped the new standards from including critical topics like consent, gender identity, and sexual orientation which would better prepare young Texans for life as they mature, and that’s concerning since it’s toughfor students—especially girls and LGBTQ students—to feel they have a voice in a traditionally straight, male-dominated society.

In many ways, it reflects the outgoing Secretary of Education’s perspectives on sexual harassment and gender identity. DeVos reversed Obama-era policies that allowed transgender students to choose their own bathrooms and narrowed the definition of sexual harassment, a move many of her critics say weakens protections for victims of harassment or assault.

In terms of science, the state is still advocating for the teaching of creationism alongside evolution, which is a disservice to our students since research shows the vast majority of scientists support evolution and not thoroughly understanding it could inhibit students’ ability to compete in STEM studies.

And in 2018, the State Board of Education approved a new social studies course called Ethnic Studies: Mexican American Studies. It is the first ethnic studies course approved by the Texas board and the class was available in classrooms for the 2019-2020 school year. Texas classrooms don’t look like they did 20 years ago, much less 30 or 40 years ago. Today, Hispanic kids makeup the majority of public school K-12 students in Texas, and the majority of those kids are of Mexican descent. And while the experience of a Latino child growing up in a rural community in the Rio Grande Valley, a suburb in Houston, or in west San Antonio are different there are certain cultural commonalities that should be celebrated and stories that should be told rather than hidden. When you teach students about their history you empower them, and providing young Texans with subject matter they may find more increasingly relevant to their lives, can only lead to better results in and out of the classroom.