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Julián Castro on Educational Opportunity, Segregation, and Nationwide Pre-K

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As a young San Antonio mayor, now-Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro made a splash in the education world when he convinced voters to approve a tax increase necessary to expand prekindergarten to low-income 4-year-olds throughout the city.

Now Castro, who went on to serve as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, has made expanding "Pre-K for SA" into "Pre-K for USA" a central part of his campaign platform.

Castro was one of the first candidates to release a K-12 education plan. Among his pledges: working with states and local providers to expand early education, providing teachers tax credits of up to $10,000 if they work in high-needs schools, and addressing school segregation.

On Monday, Castro's campaign put out an urgent call that the candidate needed to raise $800,000 in the next 10 days or he will fail to qualify for the next primary debate, which would cause him to drop out of the race for the White House. Though he hasn't polled as high as some other candidates, his policy proposals have been influential. Castro spoke to Education Week in a phone interview Monday from San Antonio.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What do you see as the federal role in education?

I would say as a pacesetter, as a strong partner in support of state and local education efforts, as an equalizer. I grew up attending two of the school districts that were at the center of the 1973 landmark Supreme court case, [San Antonio Independent School District] vs. Rodriguez that dealt with equity in school finance. And so I recognize that the federal government has a role to play in making sure that all students have an equal opportunity to get a good education.

We've heard a lot of talk about U.S. Secretary of Education Betsey DeVos on the campaign trail. What would you look for in an education secretary?

I'd look for, number one, somebody who believes in our public school system and has good experience in education. Someone who has unquestioned integrity and high ethical standards. And, third, somebody who is willing to work hard with states and local communities to support their efforts, but also play the role that I believe the federal government should play of challenging local communities to get better and ensuring that there's equal opportunity.

Your education plan calls for scaling up the work you did in San Antonio with prekindergarten nationwide. The research on pre-K says that it works best if it's high quality. How would you bring that to scale quickly and, working with state and local partners, how would you ensure that programs met the quality standards necessary to make a difference?

I would want to make sure that we have high-quality pre-K that also recognizes the best practices out there when it comes to educating 3-year-olds and 4-year- olds and that challenges  states to implement programs that are high quality. There is a tremendous amount of inconsistency among school districts in the quality, not only of their education overall, but in pre-k, and also inconsistency in which districts have implemented half-day versus full-day, and what the criteria are for who even gets pre-k.

So there's a lot of foundational work that needs to be done just to implement universal pre-k for 3- and 4- year-olds. But I believe that that also presents an opportunity to take the best practices and to spotlight those and to integrate that into the way that we fund pre-k across the United States. I believe that we need to operate from both a carrot and a stick approach of incentivizing school districts to adopt best practices.

What are standards that would be priorities for you?

Well, measuring success for a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old is different from measuring the success of a 3rd grader or certainly middle school or high schoolers. But we do want to set a standard of understanding that our kids are improving because they're getting exposed to pre-k.

And I know that there are different ways of going at that, right? That measure in an age appropriate way that gets at how effective the educational environment is. You know, are they more able to count? Are they more able to verbalize their thoughts? Are they more successful in socializing with their peers?

But we need to be careful because I don't want to subject 3- and 4-year-olds to the same kind of standardized tests that we use later on for kids. In fact, I believe that we've overdone it with standardized tests, but I do want to make sure that we're holding programs accountable for actually doing the work. So it's a matter of finding the best way to do that in an age-appropriate way that is not overbearing.

At a recent debate you said that you're not categorically opposed to charter schools—which have been a really hot topic on the trail—but that you would require "more transparency and accountability than what's required right now." How you would impose such requirements as president?

As I see it, the ability to garner federal funding should be contingent upon stronger transparency and accountability standards for charter schools. And by that I mean being subject to a Freedom of Information Act, open-meetings act laws, anti-self dealing laws for board members and other administrators of charter schools. I want the schools to have to operate in a way that is as open and transparent as in public school ... because there's value in that. And in some states they're closer to that or they have achieved that, but in a whole bunch of other states they haven't.

In a CNN commentary, you described your experience transferring to a magnet school in 6th grade, and you said that really shaped your views on educational opportunity. We've seen school choice supporters, like Betsy DeVos, use such statements to say this proves more parents need more options. Is that how you see it?

No. How I see it is that our public school system educates well over 90 percent of our young people. And in too many neighborhoods, like the neighborhoods that I grew up in, our schools have effectively been neglected and too often they're failing.

And the answer to that is not to create a new system that leaves a whole bunch of students in a worst position. The answer is to make investments and to improve the public school system that we have. So I completely disagree with secretary DeVos and her approach. I believe that her approach would decimate America's public schools and leave millions of children worse off. And, as somebody who grew up in these struggling schools, I want to see our attention focused on improvements and investments made in those public schools in the toughest neighborhoods.

And does that improvement at all involve any changes in the federal role in accountability or in changing expectations for schools? Or are you comfortable with the current picture there?

I believe that the federal government does have a strong role to play. I recognize that there's a lot of pushback to this, all right. Race to the Top [an Obama-era education initiative that required states to commit to college- and career-ready standards and other policy changes in order to apply for competitive grants] as a good example of that. I mean, Race to the Top was caricatured. You saw it turned into a political punchline, even though I believe that that was doing some very important work to try and improve the performance of schools.

So I want to make sure that whether the kid is growing up, you know, in urban San Antonio or in rural Ohio, that both of those kids are able to get an education because we have high standards. And I absolutely believe that the federal government should play a strong role as a partner in ensuring those high stakes.

You're one of several candidates who've suggested federal measures to increase teacher pay. Why is your approach better than some of the different strategies suggested by your competitors? 

You know, my father was a public school teacher for 31 years, and my wife was a public school classroom teacher for the first nine years of her career ... So I believe that we absolutely need to pay teachers what they deserve. And one of the reasons I like the approach we've laid out is that not only does it compensate teachers better, it actually challenges them to get into the toughest classrooms, because we start a teacher's tax credit at $2,000 as a base and then scale that up according to the percentage of students in that teacher's school that are on free or [reduced-price] lunch. So you're challenging teachers to use their talents where they need it the most.

There has not traditionally been a federal role in teacher pay. Is this letting states off the hook if they've underinvested in education?

We would continue to work with states to also up their investments. At the same time, I don't want to wait. When teachers are so underpaid and we have a generation of Americans that are going to need better knowledge and sharper skills in order to succeed in the 21st century economy, I see that this is such a matter of urgency that we need to act from the federal perspective.

Your education plan calls for "progressive housing policy." A lot of discussions about education don't address the issues surrounding it. How would changing housing policy help schools? And what did you think of the conversation about school segregation that emerged after the first debate?

Our schools are segregated because our neighborhoods are segregated. We can talk about 1975 all we want, but we're in 2019. I grew up in segregated neighborhoods and segregated schools. And what I know is that we need to connect the dots between educational opportunity and housing opportunity. So our plan focuses on not only improving our schools but also improving our neighborhoods. I want to invest in the most-distressed neighborhoods for the benefit of the people who live there, so that the folks who have been living in those neighborhoods want to stay...

And—this was the subject of the [Harvard economist] Raj Chetty study a few years ago—if they want to move to an area of higher opportunity, they ought to have that option too. That's why I've called for reinstituting Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing that we did at HUD as well as using our grant programs, like [Community Development Block Grants] to incentivize local communities to adopt land-use laws that make the development of affordable housing in different neighborhoods easy so that you have more opportunity for people to live where the schools are already strong.

Like accessory dwelling units? [additional dwellings, like apartments, attached to single-family homes.]

Accessory dwelling units or even the development of multifamily, affordable housing in different parts of a community, which is often resisted. There's a tremendous amount of NIMBYism [an acromym for 'not in my back yard]. Frankly, that NIMBYism is perpetrated by liberals and conservatives, people who are Republican and Democrat ... So we have a lot of work to do in our country of breaking that mentality. And it's an understandable one in the sense of anybody would be concerned about what's going to be developed near their home. But it's also a largely unfounded fear of the other.

Like many other candidates, you've talked about civil rights and addressing racial disparities in school discipline. We have had a debate over federal school discipline guidance in the last couple of years, bouncing between administrations. How would you address some parents who say they're concerned that efforts that cut back on suspensions have created disruptive classrooms or some teachers who say they don't have the resources to handle these situations differently?

I would certainly absolutely respect the voice of teachers because they're the ones who are actually in the classroom. They're seeing what happens every day. They understand the nuance and the challenge. And so we want to find a way to, when discipline is necessary, to do that in a constructive way and in a way that does not track a student into failure.I would love to understand from teachers how we can strike that balance.

In between college and law school, I was a permanent substitute teacher at my old high school for a semester. I had three of my own classes, as though I was a regular teacher, and I was terrible at it. I did recognize the challenges with discipline.

It does create a real issue if you have a few people that are determined to disrupt the class, and that that often leads other students within the classroom not to pay attention or to disrespect the teacher. I completely get that, and I agree. But I also want to see if there's a way where we don't have to over suspend and over discipline students and send them off on this track that they may never come back from. I believe that's worth it too.

So it's how do we strike that balance? I readily admit that with my limited time in the classroom, I don't have all the answers. But as president, I would absolutely appoint people who are willing to listen and have the federal government play a supportive role on these issues.

You've called for a $150 billion investment in school infrastructure. After the stimulus, after the 2008 recession, there was some concern about this big infusion of cash in schools: Was it actually adding to their efforts or were they kind of moving money around to cover other costs? How would you make sure that infrastructure money goes to the areas with the most need and that it is spent effectively?

That's a great question because I see the priority as investing in infrastructure that is needed immediately, that has the advantage of, number one, addressing the most-pressing needs of school districts, and then, secondly, being able to help equalize the educational experience of students across the country.

What I think is the Department of Education will work with states on prioritization. When I read about some school districts out there spending tens of millions of dollars on football stadiums, for instance, I think that makes some people wonder ... I believe the number one thing that we should value is our children and how they're learning in the classroom itself.

Bonus: Read more about 2020 presidential candidates education positions in our campaign tracker.

Photo: Former San Antonio Mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, front left, at an event where he announced his decision to seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in January 2019 in San Antonio. (Eric Gay/AP)


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