Interview with Gloria Romero, former California State Senator


“The bottom line is: Do we believe in parents having the rights? … I fundamentally believe that parents are the only sector of the public education system that doesn’t have a conflict of interest. They don’t have an economic stake in the public education system, except for the welfare of their children—how their children excel. Parents … have the right to advocate for their children.”

Former California Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, Ph.D., represented East Los Angeles in the California State Assembly and Senate from 1998–2010. She is now the California State Director for Democrats for Education Reform. She was the first woman and minority to chair the California Senate Education Committee. In this position, she advocated for education reform and civil rights. Her experience includes authoring California’s “Parent Trigger” legislation and California’s “Race to the Top,” a prominent part of President Obama’s education reform agenda.

PolicyMatters sat down with Senator Romero on March 29, 2011, to discuss many aspects of education policy, including her “parent trigger” legislation, higher education, the disconnect between funding and equity in performance, and how Democrats represent both students and teachers.

Sen. Gloria Romero earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from California State University, Long Beach, and her Ph.D. in psychology from University of California, Riverside. She has taught at the University of Southern California and at her alma mater, CSU Long Beach. Prior to serving in state office, Romero was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board.

PolicyMatters Journal (PMJ): You wrote in the Huffington Post that “Our kids only get one shot at an education…that prepares them for a successful future. Every year that we spend arguing and delay making the necessary reforms, we fail another year of should-be graduates.” Given the tax revenue climate gripping California and other states, how should the not-so-Golden State align its priorities if taxes are not extended by voters?

Senator Romero: This is not about the money. Money matters, but the Getting Down to Facts study by Stanford clearly showed that even if we were to pump millions into the same system, we’re going to get the same outcomes. So the question is, “What do we want?” I live in Lincoln Heights/El Sereno, Los Angeles. Right around the corner from me: Lincoln High School, the site of the very first walk-out in the 1960s, when Latino students blew out of the schools and just said, “We’re not getting an education.” Fifty percent dropout rates back then; kids not going to college. These were supposedly the glory days, when we had all the money, right? So it’s not about the money.

It comes down to priorities, values. Follow the money. Even if we get the taxes extended, without reforms, we’re going to keep getting the same outcomes. So I look at it and think: my wish would be that if we are to extend taxes, these should be tied to needed reforms. The last teacher in, first teacher out? Let’s link teacher performance to student outcomes and be able to identify teacher quality. Otherwise, we are simply going to be saying, “Just give me, give me, give me,” and still get the same output. It’s not acceptable.

PMJ: Ronald Reagan once called higher education a privilege, not a right. Given that the U.S. economy has undergone structural changes toward an information-based economy since he was the governor of California, how would you respond if such a statement were made today?

Senator Romero: Higher education is more critical than it’s ever been. It is a global economy. We know that today the major competition is not between the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s between the United States and the rest of the world. We can go to China, to India, to Russia, South Korea, and find different levels of economic prosperity linked to educational achievement. So rather than even talking in terms of privileges and rights, higher education is a necessity. This is an age of information. You cannot excel in this economy any longer with a high school diploma of the past. It is more complicated, and we need greater cognitive skills and intelligence in order to conduct the work that we do. So, I think that it is important for us to fight to maintain access to higher education.

I come from the community college system—that was my entrance. To me, when we look at the community colleges, those are what I would call the Ellis Islands. They’re the first landing. I would like to see greater investment and support of community colleges. In particular, I would like to see more dual-enrollment systems and greater opportunities for transfers between community college and four-year universities, like the Cal State system in which I happen to be teaching. And then there are the UCs, which are critical in terms of research and support. I think there is a way that we can construct and develop them so that they can further collaborate with each other. We tend to keep them in silos. We’re not always sure what each of them is really doing. But given that resources are scarce, I think that there are smarter ways to have them interface and link with one another. And I would definitely highlight access to community colleges as a critical role in increasing our higher educational achievement.

PMJ: Career technical education, what some might call an alternative to a university education, is also identified as an approach to narrowing the achievement gap. Do you think this is an effective approach?

Senator Romero: I’m bothered by this question. First of all, everybody should have career technical education. I don’t care if you’re a history major, an English arts major, or  a civil engineering major. But the way that we have historically looked at career technical education—and these were the old “shop” classes in my days—creates the question: Who are we targeting? Who are we telling, basically, “You go there!” It comes down to tracking. So if we could develop a means by which career technical education is more than just a fancy term to keep doing the tracking that we historically have seen, then we can open up the door and look at it. But right now, the question is: Who are we tracking, and for what purpose? I’d like to see continued emphasis on education and access to higher education. We’ve seen from the global economy that we need more college graduates. I’d like to see great rigor and relevance in career technical education. There’s certainly a role and a need. Then, probably, we all should have access to career technical education. I just don’t want to see the old tracking.

PMJ: Earlier this month, the California legislature increased the age minimum for kindergarten. At the same time, the legislature also eliminated state-funded child care. What do you think will be the impact on education? What would you recommend to families and communities who will pay the price?

Senator Romero: This was an interesting issue, and this question has been around for a long time. There’s long been the argument that there is too much of a disparity in age gap in kindergarten, and we did begin to see the statistics. A child who might be four-and-a-half or four-and-three-quarters is cognitively at a different stage than somebody who may be five-and-a-half or six. We kept seeing over and over the data coming that once you enter school, if you are at the lower end of that age gap where you don’t have the background, you don’t have the reading skills, even the socialization skills, you get left behind. You enter in behind and you stay behind. So that data was pretty clear-cut and convincing. The argument overall was to maintain kindergarten until age six. Having said that, it does, of course, raise the issue of who is there. Now, to a large extent, this is going to affect especially Latino students given the numbers and the growth patterns in the state. I’m bothered of course, too, by the cutting of funds on child care. It is a budget crisis, so cuts are going to be happening regardless.

I think that it shows that we have to have an early focus on literacy, really on some basics—reading. Reading is a gateway skill. If you can read, you can learn, you can excel, you can move forward. So I think as we start looking at cuts in certain areas, I would really begin to focus on looking at early childhood development, as early as we can. To a certain extent, you can’t do math if you can’t read the problem. So it still comes down to reading and literacy. And that’s where I think we would start if you have to prioritize. As far as parents, we ask, “Who pays the price overall?”

Next year there’s already another projected shortfall. So that’s why I think we can do this year after year, talking about budget cuts, yet there won’t be extensions for five years. I think it’s an opportunity to do some reforms. There is going to be some short-term immediate pain as we all feel the brunt of budget cutbacks, and less slots, and hurting of especially poor people who depend upon child care programs. But I think it compels us to think about what types of reforms we should demand in education to have it ready. It’s not going to be a pretty year. And it hasn’t been for a few years, but it is, as people are saying, “the new normal.”

PMJ: describes the parent trigger law as “only a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.” Would you elaborate on the purpose of the law in the context of other reform measures? Is it central, or is something deeper needed?

Senator Romero: The bottom line is: Do we believe in parents having the rights? When I wrote that parent trigger law, I got limited to seventy-five schools in the negotiations, and I would have put in for many more. But I fundamentally believe that parents are the only sector of the public education system that doesn’t have a conflict of interest. They don’t have an economic stake in the public education system, except for the welfare of their children—how their children excel. Parents really are the ones who are not fighting for a piece of that economic pie, and they have the right to advocate for their children. It’s about empowerment. Saying the parent trigger law is a “Band-Aid” is like saying the Preamble to the United States Constitution—we, the people, have the right to petition our government—is a Band-Aid.

I look at this thinking about the Compton parents, thinking about my mother, thinking about others who are bound by zip code and in a school where we are essentially trapped. There’s no way out and this district is not changing, because, you know what? “You bring me money. You are my debit cards.” It’s a fiefdom, it’s territory, it’s turf! And with school districts, they will not make the changes because it’s in their economic interest not to do so in their own balance sheets. Then parents do have the right to say, “We the people” with our John Hancock . . . that’s as democratic as democracy can get! I think it is empowerment. It’s power to the parents. That’s not a Band-Aid. That is, I think to me, a real signal that parents care about their children, will fight for their children, and that we as a state should not hinder or block parents’ understanding that education is what enables us to even have access to an American dream.

PMJ: The Democratic Party simultaneously represents many public education workers and so many parents of their struggling clients—the youth. How could the party reconcile the divergent interests of the two camps? Who represents the struggling youth and their parents in the party?

Senator Romero: That’s a product of just how everything is entangled. I think the reason we started Democrats for Education Reform is we believed there is a real problem in our public education system. But the Democratic Party has become very entrenched, in terms of who contributes and who maintains, and it becomes very hard to go up against the money that is fed to pump the machine. So there’s great complacency. By the same token, we find that within these interests, there are divergences. I think it’s more a question of looking at disconnects, a disconnected leadership from its rank-and-file. Because even as I talk about teachers unions or other public sector workers, like for example SEIU, it’s important to recognize that it’s not just this monolith. Many rank-and-file teachers and others will challenge their own executive boards of their unions. And we’re seeing more and more of that happening. I think that’s good. I think that’s again just saying, “I’m examining the conscience of my own organization.” And saying, “Don’t block education reform in my name.”

I don’t think any longer that change is coming from Sacramento. It’s got to be pushing, it’s got to be mobilizing, it’s got to be people working with other parents in Compton or community groups in San Jose or Sacramento. But probably one of the last places it will be in is Sacramento because of the entrenched interests. But that’s where you build. We have to build coalitions and movements in public education, and rekindle a civil rights movement centered around education.

PMJ: How much of the educational achievement gap has to do with issues such as student motivation, parent support, and home environment? Does policy have a role to play in these arenas?

Senator Romero: That becomes a “those kids” argument, and I have heard that too often. I believe every kid can learn. I believe that a teacher is paramount and is the most important variable in a child’s educational life. I have found that in communities of high poverty and children of color, high teacher turnover is facilitated and promulgated by contracts, rules, and policies. That is not acceptable. Absolutely every child is a responsibility. And parents, I believe, are the first teacher and have a responsibility. But even when I try to write laws giving parents power, like parent trigger, the same special interests that complain about those parents are the first ones to stand up and say, “You can’t have that power; that’s us!” So there’s a real contradiction here.

I think that it is about the policies that are promulgated by school districts that, for too long, have disenfranchised students’ opportunities to learn. At the same time, I think I want to do a parent empowerment campaign. I want parents to know not only their rights, but their responsibilities. I want to be able to provide laws and opportunities that give rights to parents. If people are really sincere when they say the parents are responsible, then they should be the last ones to stand up and complain about any laws, whether it’s parent triggers, open enrollment, charters, you name it. When parents say, “I want to have a say in my kid’s education,” then don’t block me when I mobilize in order to try and effectuate that change. We can’t talk out of both sides of our mouths.

PolicyMatters would like to extend a special thank you to Vianey Nuñez of the Goldman Latino Speaker Series, as well as the Youth Policy Committee, the Graduate Assembly, and the César E. Chávez Institute at San Francisco State University for making this interview possible.