Education was a hot topic at One on One with Senator José Menéndez, a luncheon event hosted by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at the Westin Riverwalk on September 19, 2017. Ramiro Cavazos, President and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber, led a conversation about the recent legislative sessions and their impact on business in San Antonio.
Cavazos recognized a special guest at the head table: Menéndez’s son Austin, who was not feeling well. Cavazos mentioned often seeing Menéndez at school dropoff and pickup—proof that Menéndez is an engaged father who is trying to find work-life balance.
When asked by Cavazos to “encapsulate” the recent sessions, Menéndez replied that he expected the top issue to be public education—in particular, school finance reform—but that other issues stole the attention. (“We just need to let people run their lives,” said Menéndez.) He cited several achievements related to education:
- David’s Law, a bill to address cyberbullying, “should have been a no-brainer” but suffered many near-deaths. He thanked Rep. Ina Minjarez for championing David’s Law in the House.
- A new law, HB 1270, gives students (age 17 years old and up) up to four excused absences per year for talking to military recruiters—extending a rule that already existed for college visits.
- A law related to standardized testing, HB 22, reduced the burden of re-testing for special education students, among other changes.
Why did school finance reform get pushed aside? “Politics is being driven by how votes will play in primary elections, because most seats are decided then,” said Menéndez. He and Cavazos praised Speaker Joe Straus for preventing “embarrassing” legislation that would hurt the business community. “Straus has the character of a statesman,” said Cavazos, adding “These good leaders need our backup.” Menéndez described Straus as a “reluctant politician” whose “courage is valuable because he tries to do what’s right.”
Menéndez encouraged the Hispanic Chamber audience to get more politically involved: “You’ve got to show up and vote, or otherwise you are letting other people make decisions for you.” He recalled an early-career election that he had won by only 41 votes. “If you don’t get involved, you don’t have a right to complain.”
Asked about what to expect in the next legislative session, Menéndez answered, “To move our state forward, we must increase the educational attainment of our state.” The Texas Supreme Court ruled that the school finance system was constitutional, but called it “byzantine” and “imperfect, with immense room for improvement.”
Menéndez emphasized that children who live in different parts of the city are not getting the same quality of education; too much depends on their parents’ zip code. Improving public education is essential because “there are five million kids in Texas public schools, and we don’t have an alternative for that.”
He cited data showing that a common denominator among the prison population is low educational attainment: “We must look at improving the system because our choice is educate or incarcerate.” He encouraged members to send suggestions for interim charges to their state elected officials so that they can hold hearings and get ready to pass legislation in the next session.
Business leaders care about an educated workforce as a resource for future economic development. “Texas’s economic miracle will go away if we don’t have an educated workforce to compete globally,” said Menéndez.
Cavazos concluded the discussion by asking Menéndez two questions from notecards collected from the audience. One was mine: “What’s next for public school finance?” Whatever comes next, it’s clear that Menéndez and the business leaders of the Hispanic Chamber will have a significant role to play.
It was fun to see friends at the event: Marisa B. Perez-Diaz, District 3 of the Texas State Board of Education, with Marissa Rodriguez and Rachel Mercer-Smith of IDEA Public Schools, a public charter network with 20 schools in San Antonio.
Here is a group of education influencers: Adanary Galindo, Marisa B. Perez-Diaz, Stephanie Guerra, and me.