Julián Castro wants voters to know that he attended segregated schools as a student. The Democratic presidential candidate says that experience shaped his education plans, which he’s been touting this week even as he warns supporters that he may have to drop out of the race later this month.
The former mayor of San Antonio is calling for universal pre-kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds, a federal tax credit to raise teacher pay, and a national program to develop more teachers of color.
He’s also proposed more affordable housing in high-opportunity areas, zoning reform, and investments in transportation to desegregate schools — tying education to efforts to address the country’s housing issues, building on his experience as the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama.
In an interview with Chalkbeat, Castro was hesitant to say whether he would cut funding for charter schools, something that Sen. Elizabeth Warren attracted a lot of attention for when she released her K-12 education plan this week, and that Sen. Bernie Sanders has also pledged to do.
He did say he wanted to subject charters to greater transparency and accountability measures. But he would continue to support giving parents choices within the public school system, while also working to improve the neighborhood schools where students are assigned based on where they live.
Here’s what else he told us.
You’ve talked a lot about how housing is really important for tackling school segregation, and you have plans that talk about addressing residential segregation. Tell me more about what you think the role of the Department of Education should be in encouraging school desegregation.
As I see it, our schools are segregated because our neighborhoods are segregated, and we need to connect the dots of policy to address that segregation across departments. The Department of Education has a role to play with HUD in making sure that our policies are linked up. For instance, I believe that one of the ways that we should assess communities for grants at the departments of education and housing is how good a job are they doing in sparking greater housing opportunity for families, especially families that are low-income and families of color.
Fundamentally, what I want to do is to create options for families. We need to be able to make sure that they can continue to live in the neighborhoods that they’re living in, if they want to do that, and we should invest in those traditionally distressed neighborhoods so that people’s quality of life is better. And at the same time, following on the Raj Chetty research from 2015, we need to also ensure that people have more options in terms of moving to neighborhoods that offer opportunity right now.
What do you think about the federal government playing a role in incentivizing school desegregation? Is there anything you think the Department of Education could do to nudge places to get back involved in desegregation work that we really haven’t seen happening across the country?
I believe so. I also believe that we need to continue to enforce anti-discrimination laws in education, in housing, in every way that we can, to open more opportunity at the local level for families of modest means and people of color to be able to attend the public schools of their preference.
And I say that as somebody that grew up in segregated neighborhoods and went to segregated schools. The two school districts that I went to [San Antonio and Edgewood] … were two of the seven districts at the heart of the 1973 Supreme Court case in which the 5-4 court refused to strike down Texas’ unequal school financing system, that eventually was better addressed in 1989 [by the Texas Supreme Court]. I had a front-row seat to the impact that the legacy of discrimination can make on education.
My brother and I, thankfully, were able to get that education and then go to college and law school and reach our dreams, but that’s not the case for the vast majority of students still stuck in those classrooms. I wholeheartedly agree with both a carrot and a stick approach to helping further integrate classrooms in our country.
As I understand it, there is still a block on using federal money for busing for desegregation. Is there any way you see that you could get around that and encourage voluntary busing?
I believe that for school districts that are interested in doing that, they should have the opportunity to do it, and the federal government should help facilitate that.
At the September debate you had said, “It is a myth that charter schools are better than public schools. They’re not.” Then you elaborated: “I’m not categorically against charter schools. I would require more transparency and accountability.” Can you talk a little bit about your position on charter schools and what you’re concerned about with them?
It seems like the common notion is that charter schools are generally better than public schools, and at least the research that I’ve seen suggests otherwise. [Most studies show charter and district schools perform comparably, though charter schools in many cities perform better. In San Antonio, charters perform slightly worse.] There are a handful of charter schools that are true standouts and I applaud their success.
I believe that one of the original intentions of charter schools was that they would be able to experiment and perhaps provide some insight that the public school system could learn from and adopt. But I don’t believe that happens as much as it could. Secondly, a lot of charter schools don’t have to play by the same rules that public school systems do in terms of transparency and accountability. And by this I mean open records laws, open meetings laws, prohibitions against self-dealing with board members and administrators. There is an opacity there that concerns me.
Do you believe that you would reduce or cut funding for the Charter Schools Program, which has been one of the main drivers of charter school expansion?
My first priority is going to be to expand the resources for our public schools.
But would you want to roll back funding for the Charter Schools Program?
We would evaluate that. It’s different in different states right now, in terms of the landscape of charter schools, how many of them are permitted, and the rules around how many more could come into existence. I would like to analyze that, and understand the changes that we need to make.
Can you tell me one thing that you have learned from your wife’s experience in education that is shaping how you’re thinking about education policy?
My wife started her career as a classroom elementary math teacher in the school district that she grew up in on the south side of San Antonio, which is a low-income school district. One of the things I remember her telling me early on in her teaching career is how itinerant a lot of the students in these low-income school districts are. Oftentimes they move around from place to place, school to school, because they can’t afford the rent at an apartment, and they may get evicted or may end up having to double up and live with a relative. That itinerancy is a big problem for making sure that students actually learn smoothly in a school year.
So that’s one more reason that I think our housing policy and education policy should work together. When I was HUD secretary, there was a program in the Tacoma school district … that used housing choice vouchers to incentivize families to stay put so that their students could have an effective educational experience without having to move around two or three or four times during a school year. That struck me, because that’s being thoughtful about how you can use housing policy and education policy to create a better chance for students to learn.
Is there anything else from your experience of running the Department of Housing and Urban Development that you feel impacts your perspective on schools?
What I see is that many of the same students that are sitting in classrooms that have the toughest needs are those same students that are living in public housing or whose family has a housing choice voucher. They are low-income students, they are facing tough odds, and so I believe the more we can coordinate our housing, education and other policies around providing what those families need to succeed, the better off they’re going to be. Maybe that’s most reflected by my call for a community school model that invests in that school the resources, the connections to housing opportunities and health care opportunities and job opportunities.
How are you thinking about neighborhood schools? Because we’re talking so much about housing policy and students are often assigned to go to school based off of where they live, do you have any thoughts about whether or not that model should be one of the most common ways we send kids to school?
I’ve been a supporter of giving parents options within the public school system. I do think that school districts should look at ways they can be more effective there. I went to a magnet school centered around foreign languages within the public school system. Fundamentally, our school system can strengthen the neighborhood-based approach, but we need better coordination among policies. And we need more investment of resources and to equip our teachers with the tools they need to be successful for the students.
You’re one of the few candidates who actually has school-aged children. I wonder if the process of having to choose schools for your kids — has that impacted your thinking about education policy?
I’m not afraid of public schools. I think a lot of parents come in with this preconceived notion that somehow the public schools are going to fail their kids. I grew up in the public school system. I fundamentally believe that our children can get a good education in our public schools. So there was never a question, when my kids started school — my son just started pre-K this year — that they would go to public schools. And my daughter did that from the beginning.
Like every parent, I want the best for my children, and I understand they can do well in the public school system.