While most of us are familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 ruling that put a formal end to “separate but equal” schooling and began the long fight to close the black-white achievement gap in America, few have heard about Hispanics’ important contributions in the fight against segregation. A new research paper by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a public policy think tank, offers a rich appreciation of how the Hispanic population has played a critical role in our country’s fight for educational equity.
It’s a little-known part of our history, one that is often overshadowed by the great events of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But the fact is, Hispanic and Latino parents were engaged in civil disobedience for years before the Montgomery bus boycott, the march on Selma, Alabama or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s immortal “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
As scholars Gerard Robinson and Elizabeth English chronicle, parents in Southern California were battling educational injustices as early as 1931, when Mexican parents in Lemon Grove refused to let 75 of their children be segregated from white students and placed in a wooden school building called “La Caballeriza” — the barn. The parents mobilized and boycotted the school before eventually filing a lawsuit. In the end, a San Diego County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the Mexican-American families, stating:
“I understand that you can separate a few children; to improve their education they need special instruction. But to separate all the Mexicans in one group can only be done by infringing the laws of the state of California.”
The favorable ruling proved short-lived, as segregation became politically acceptable once again during World War II. But here too, we see Hispanic parents refusing to accept this new norm.
“When Gonzalo Mendez’s children were denied admission to an Orange County public school in 1943, he and other Mexican parents filed the first federal lawsuit in the U.S. that challenged segregation in a primary public school,” Robinson and English write.
Much like the 1931 lawsuit in San Diego, a federal judge eventually ruled in favor of Mendez, agreeing that “school segregation policies violated the Fourteenth Amendment” covering citizenship rights and equal protection under the law.
This history lesson is important because although we are thankfully no longer living under segregation, there are still wide disparities in our educational system. Many Hispanic families — particularly those living in underserved communities — are confined to their local public school with few options to go elsewhere. Many of these public schools are plagued with ineffective teachers, crime and violence — all of which conspire against fostering an environment conducive to learning.
Thankfully, public charter schools are providing Hispanic families with a lifeline out of deteriorating public schools. For more than a quarter century, public charter schools have operated with greater freedom and autonomy than a traditional public school, in exchange for higher standards of accountability.
As charter schools have grown in popularity and demonstrated their added value, Hispanic parents have been clamoring for greater access to these high performing schools. This is why in a recent survey, 84 percent of Hispanic parents said they favor or strongly in favor letting parents at least choose which public school their child attends.
Unfortunately, powerful interest groups are determined to limit the expansion of charter schools, including those in communities with large Hispanic populations. A modern injustice that is often overlooked despite the years of progress to increase educational equity for all.
Hispanic Americans should look back at their history fighting against segregation and unjust educational policies as a source of inspiration to challenge all those that are opposing expanding educational choice, including allowing Hispanic families to send their children to high performing public charter schools.
The fight for educational equity continues.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter: @IzzyOrtega