"If the education reform community wants to empower minorities, then white people in the education-reform community need to share power with people of color," says Anthony Colón, a long-time leader in America's Latino community. "They have to work with minorities, not for them."
Colón, who is now president of his own consulting firm, has 35 years' experience in education and 15 years' experience in the education-reform community. Colón will share some of his experiences and expertise on March 19 in Las Vegas, where he will speak at an education summit aimed at making public education work for minorities and other under-served communities in Nevada.
Prior to starting his own consulting business, Colón served as president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (Hispanic CREO) and vice president of education at the National Council of La Raza – a Hispanic organization that was a product of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
It was while Colón was at La Raza — which did not support vouchers — that he was invited to become a board member of the Alliance for School Choice, a strong supporter of vouchers.
"Hispanics needed a seat at the table and the education-reform community needed to hear our voice," says Colón. He embraced the opportunity to listen to and communicate with people of diverse opinions and solutions, believing that for Hispanics to become masters of their own destiny, they needed to have a voice in the education-reform movement.
That belief has been a driving force behind Colón's tireless efforts on behalf of education reform. While leading La Raza's education efforts, Colón helped raise more than $40 million to help form 100 charter schools in Latino communities nationwide.
"We created some great schools and we created some not-so-great schools," he recalls. "But we created some options and we empowered parents with some choices."
Predictably, Colón's efforts have met consistent resistance. Whether the charter schools were successful or not, there was always a call to protect the failing status quo from meaningful alternatives. And today, Colón sees defenders of the status quo regularly blaming parents for the failures of public education.
Colón strongly objects to this line of argument, noting that "this is a complicated conversation" and that it is important to step back and consider some broader questions: "Who are we as a people? What about poverty, discrimination, school funding? How effective or friendly is the leadership, how good are the teachers?" Colón says that "to blame parents as if they don't care is either ludicrous or it epitomizes the racial discrimination that persists today."
His points are worth considering. After all, public education here in Nevada isn't failing wealthy students, and it isn't failing most white students. But public education is failing Nevada's low-income, African-American and Hispanic students. Placing blame on the parents of those communities might be at least a subconscious and convenient, if not discriminatory, excuse to abandon those who need help the most.
"Leaders, especially Democrats of color, need to understand what maintaining the status quo has done and will continue to do to our children" Colón says.
To improve public education, says Colón, he will embrace whatever policy works, which is why he has become a strong supporter of "parental choice" — empowering parents to send their children to the public or private school they choose, with the assistance of vouchers or tax credits. Colón says school choice is not and must not be a partisan issue, though it is often cast that way.
"Vouchers are not a Republican idea," he says, adding that the concept is based not on ideology but on practicality. Colón points to the statistics: "If your community is underperforming with low graduation rates and sits at the bottom of the barrel in math and science, you don't worry about vouchers being a Republican issue. You worry about what works for your community."
To Colón, vouchers are merely a delivery system to empower parents with the right to choose the schools that work for their children. He believes strongly that what works — not partisan politics — should be the guiding principle for education reform.
Colón, whose long résumé includes serving as Chairman of the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), says Nevada needs to reform teacher training and create alternative pathways to teacher certification, because education colleges do a poor job educating teachers. He also calls on the teacher unions to stop focusing on protecting teachers at the expense of students.
"Spending more money and reducing class sizes only funds a broken education system," says Colón. "If you want to reform education you have to have an open mind. You have to think outside the box."
Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.