Education Week | By Ileana Najarro | December 7, 2021
When Stephanie Parra, a Latina, attended her first state conference as a newly elected school board member of the Phoenix Union high school district in Arizona, she could count on two hands the people of color in the room.
“It was not a welcoming space, and it was not a space where I felt like I should be,” Parra said.
That was back in 2014. Since then, the state of diversity among school board members across the country has remained low compared to the growing diversity of the nation’s student population. That includes a persistent lack of Latino representation.
A national EdWeek Research Center survey of more than 1,500 school board members administered last year found that 86 percent of respondents said they had no Latino colleagues on their board. Meanwhile Latinos were 27 percent of public school students in the country in 2018, according to the latest federal data.
Advocates and board members alike believe Latino representation on school boards is necessary to ensure that Latino students’ educational needs are met and their voices are heard when decisions are made over everything from who gets hired to teach in a district to how funding is allocated. Latino board members, they said, can provide unique perspectives and greater connections to Latino communities when creating policies.
“It’s one of the most important locally elected positions that we have in this country, our school boards,” Parra said. “We are making decisions about the future of our country every single day.”
But with so few Latinos serving as role models on school boards, and barriers to entry such as lack of resources to run political campaigns, existing Latino leaders and nonprofit organizations are stepping in to set examples and create pathways for a new generation.
Why representation matters
While board members of all backgrounds can promote and implement equitable policies, Latino members can have a distinct ability to engage with a district’s Latino community, including in some cases being able to communicate with families in Spanish, Parra said.
Parra was first elected to the Phoenix board in 2014. The district is over 80 percent Hispanic. Her experience in graduate school mentoring Latino undergraduates who felt unprepared for college life led her to run for a board seat to ensure schools were better preparing students for life after high school.
In her time on the board, she’s seen firsthand how being in the room and asking questions such as where district money is going can have a lot of impact. For instance, she said, an audit on school investments when she was on the board revealed that the last several investments had been made in the central corridor of the district which tends to be a more affluent and white community even though there was need elsewhere, including in the Latino community.
Now the board members and the district reset themselves to make sure they are investing equitably across the system.
And it’s not just big-picture spending where board members have an impact.
Manny Cruz, a school committee member of Salem Public Schools in Massachusetts elected in 2017 and re-elected this year, said his team was in charge of changing a transportation policy allowing more time for parents of English-learners and newcomers to sign their students up for school transportation. The district is about 43 percent Hispanic.
Cruz has even directly recruited paraprofessionals who are bilingual Latinos and who are now on pathways to becoming classroom teachers, he said.
And now, as school boards and committees are navigating politicized topics such as mask policies and how to teach about race in classrooms, Latino voices are needed more than ever, said Amanda Fernandez, CEO and founder of the organization Latinos for Education.
For instance, Fernandez said much of what we see in media coverage is parents against things like mask mandates but multiple perspectives need to be seen and heard, including the Latino perspective.
So why the low number of Latino school board members?
For one thing, running for school board costs money and requires fundraising know-how that the Latino community overall has not yet been as exposed to, Fernandez said. Few have attained the level of personal wealth and political capital needed to successfully run a campaign.
Members of the Latino community who are newly arrived immigrants, for instance, don’t have established relationships with donors who are needed to be viable in a race, Cruz said.
Then there’s the chicken and egg problem: Without enough Latino representation already, there are few role models around to incentivize others to run and fix the lack of representation issue.
That’s where groups like Latinos for Education come in. They can help Latinos network and learn about resources they can access to effectively run a campaign and what a board seat responsibility means.
The organization manages a fellowship program that helps Latinos in the New England and Houston areas get onto the boards of education nonprofits, where they can get real-time experience in board leadership along with ongoing training and networking assistance from Latinos for Education.
“What’s really important is sort of building the awareness of the opportunity, and, frankly, the responsibility that we have as a community to run for these positions,” Fernandez said.
Prior to participating in the fellowship in 2019, Janette Garza-Lindner, an energy industry consultant in Houston, didn’t think serving on a board was her thing, let alone running for an elected office.
But thanks to the fellowship experience and the people she met in the process, Garza-Lindner is headed for a run-off vote on Dec. 11 for a seat on Houston Independent School District’s board. The district is more than 60 percent Hispanic.
Garza-Lindner was new to campaign finance, as well as navigating the partisanship of school board elections that were only nominally nonpartisan, and more.
“I just feel no matter the outcome—and I’m going to win—but no matter the outcome, that this has enabled me to be such a better advocate for change no matter where I serve,” she said.
But support for Latino representation shouldn’t end at getting individuals elected, Parra in Phoenix said.
“My entire first year, I had no clue what I was doing,” she said. “I didn’t know Robert’s Rules of Order [a guide to parliamentary procedure]. I didn’t know how to get things on an agenda, what to do.”
But she always took the position seriously and learned over time. Now she hopes others will follow her path, through the education advocacy organization Arizona Latino Leaders, or ALL in Education, where she serves as executive director.
In this role, she advocates for more Latinos to become education leaders and to empower Latino parents to get more involved in their children’s educational future and work alongside these leaders.
“All of the academic outcomes that we seek as educators, we will reap the benefits if we take the time to truly involve and invest in our community,” she said.