When you’re making policy about public education, does it matter whether you send your own kids to public schools or private schools? I’d sure like to know, but I also want to look at voting records and other data about candidates’ positions.
This question recently became a campaign issue in the Democratic primary for Texas House District 116. Incumbent Diana Arévalo is facing a challenge from Trey Martinez Fischer, who wants his seat back. Gilbert Garcia, a political columnist at the San Antonio Express News, reported on a controversy at a candidate forum hosted by the Northwest Democrats of Bexar County:
After Martinez Fischer touted his efforts to restore public-education funding that had been slashed by Republicans in the Legislature, Arévalo suggested that Martinez Fischer was hypocritical because he sends his two young daughters to private, not public, elementary schools.
Later, Martinez Fischer posted a response on his campaign Facebook page: “I am open to criticism at anytime, and anyplace, but my children are off limits as all children should be during a campaign.”
Garcia offered a balanced commentary, but I want to take a closer look. I am of two minds on this topic, so I will go ahead and argue both sides with myself.
Yes, It Matters Where a Candidate’s Kids Go to School
It’s a nice idea that we can be perfectly objective about policy arguments, without any bias from our personal experiences. But that’s not how the world really works, is it? We see the world through the lens of our own stories and the experiences of our circle of friends.
“It does strike me as a tad hypocritical to be a public school advocate while simultaneously sending your own kids to private school. I’d be having mega cognitive dissonance,” wrote Cristina Noriega, a parent with two daughters in San Antonio ISD. Noriega held up Julian Castro as an example of a political leader who does enroll his children in public schools.
If Martinez Fischer doesn’t have children in the public school system, then what are his sources of information about public education in his district? He is a graduate of public schools (specifically, Holmes High School in Northside ISD), but times change, and the current generation of students has new challenges.
Another way to learn would be to visit lots of public school campuses, as did Diego Bernal, Representative for District 123 Representative and Vice Chair of the Public Education Committee. Bernal is a proud father but his daughter is too young to attend public school yet.
What is the quality of traditional public schools in District 116? The district follows I-10 from near downtown to northwest San Antonio near Loop 1604. Here is a snapshot of several schools in District 116, with accountability data:
- Odgen Elementary (San Antonio ISD), rated Improvement Required (School Report Card 2017)
- Longfellow Middle School (San Antonio ISD), rated Improvement Required (School Report Card 2017)
- McDermott Elementary (Northside ISD), rated Met Standard (School Report Card 2017)
- Brandeis High School (Northside ISD), rated Met Standard, with a distinction in math (School Report Card 2017)
As you can see from the accountability ratings, there is high variability in the quality of public schools in District 116. Some, like Brandeis, are highly rated, while others may be close to a charter school conversion. If Martinez Fischer chooses to send his children to private school, he should take other actions, such as touring public schools (including public charter schools) and talking with public school parents, to get informed about what’s really going on in schools that are a world apart from his daughters’ private school.
The same standard should apply to Arévalo. She raised the issue of sending one’s kids to public school, while she herself is a graduate of private Catholic schools. Should a Catholic school education only be available to families who can afford tuition or qualify for a scholarship? She should also explain to voters what she is doing to get information about the quality of public schools in her district.
Knowing where a candidates’ children go to school, and where the candidates themselves went to school when they were growing up, helps voters know what perspective they are coming from. As one of my friends commented, “They need to have a published list for politicians . . . who send their kids to public vs. private!” That would be interesting reading.
No, It Doesn’t Matter Where a Candidate’s Kids Go to School
On the other hand, we don’t know the details of Martinez Fischer’s family situation. Is it really any of our business?
For more than a year, I was homeschooling my son, F.T., while working as an advocate for charter schools. (In my defense, for part of that time, F.T. was on a charter school waiting list.) Does that make me a hypocrite? I was doing the best I could for my family with the resources available to me. My son receives special education services; in theory, all public schools should offer him the services he needs, but as a practical matter some schools just can’t accommodate him.
Rather than focusing on where they send their kids to school, perhaps it would be more meaningful to judge the candidates based on their voting records. It’s not possible to make direct comparisons on particular votes because they did not serve in the legislature at the same time, but we can make inferences from key votes during their respective tenures.
On May 16, 2013, Martinez Fischer voted for an amendment to SB 2 that would have delayed expansion of charter schools. Earlier in 2013, TCTA named Martinez Fischer a Friend of Education. The same year, Northside ISD named Martinez Fischer a Pillar of Citizenship. More information about Martinez Fischer’s voting record is available from Teach the Vote (ATPE).
Arévalo is still in her first term in the legislature. Notably, she voted in favor of HB 22 to modify the accountability system. This bill was a compromise that got support from both education reformers and traditional public school districts. (However, some public education advocates would like to get rid of A-F accountability ratings altogether.) Would Martinez Fischer have voted differently? It’s hard to say. More information about Arévalo’s voting record is available from Teach the Vote (ATPE).
Ultimately, we have to trust parents that they know what is best for their children. If Martinez Fischer has enrolled his children in private school, then I trust that he is making the best choice their for their future. But do Arévalo and Martinez Fischer trust the parents who live in District 116 to make decisions about their own children’s education? Parents need to speak up and get their message across to these candidates.
- “District 116 race: Public-school advocacy vs. private-school parenting,” Gilbert Garcia, San Antonio Express-News, February 3, 2018
- “Let Arevalo continue her good work,” Susan Sabino, San Antonio Express-News, December 14, 2017
- “Straus departure will factor into Martinez Fischer campaign,” Gilbert Garcia, San Antonio Express-News, December 5, 2017
- “What They Said: What I Learned from Conversations with Texas Educators,” Diego Bernal, Medium, August 18, 2016