This blog post is the first in a series featuring National Alliance board members as we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Growing up in the Los Angeles housing projects, Moctesuma Esparza knows what it is to not have access to high-quality public schools. His family did the best they could to provide. Moctesuma’s circumstances growing up did not limit his path to success.
Today, Moctesuma is the founder and board chair of the Los Angeles Academy of Arts and Enterprise as well as a current board member for the National Alliance. He is also the founder of Maya Pictures and producer of popular films like Selena, The Milagro Beanfield War, Gettysburg (1993), and Gods and Generals (2003). He has built a career sharing the contemporary American Latino experience.
But just where did this Mexican American award-winning filmmaker, producer, entrepreneur, and activist get roots in the public education system? I sat down with Moctesuma to get more details about his educational background.
What made you join the charter school movement?
I went to Murchison Street Elementary School, which services the Ramona Gardens housing project and the neighboring community in Boyle Heights, and Lincoln Junior and Senior High School, a six-year school serving 7th-12th grade students in Lincoln Heights. My experience of public school when I was a student was that Latino children—the majority of minority children, but particularly Latinos in Los Angeles—were not encouraged to go to college or given the same level of educational opportunities as more affluent schools in the Los Angels area. The disparity was glaring and damaging.
To combat the inequity, I helped start an educational reform movement resulting in the organization of students who protested their lack of quality education and the Chicano Civil Rights’ movement—leading to walkouts in March of 1968 in Los Angeles. That local movement became a national movement where Latino students walked out all across the United States—from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, and even in areas of the Midwest and East. That became the launch of an educational reform movement that continues to this day.
Over fifty years later, public schools still have not reached the point where they are providing educational equity to urban working-class families in the minority communities. The charter school movement was an opportunity for me to take direct action by creating schools that would address the needs of students, respect their cultural heritage or unique American expression, and provide students with a quality education and inspiration for education that could lead them to fulfill their life ambitions and potential.
The charter school movement is a huge step forward in creating educational equity and also in reforming and inspiring district schools to create more equitable deliveries of education. The charter school movement is realizing these two goals and it’s why I became involved in the charter school movement.
Can you describe the current educational landscape for Latino families?
For Latino families—Mexican Americans and other Latinos—there’s still a huge disparity in the quality of education, particularly in urban working-class communities. There’s a lack of resources in capital and educational equity as well as overcrowding in our schools. This is in addition to the inherent structural problems in the delivery of resources and the retention and promotion of quality teachers. We tend to get more younger teachers with less experience. There is less of a quality real estate, a physical plant. There are all sorts of problems that continue to affect urban minority schools and particularly schools that are serving Mexican American students and Central American students. Recent immigrants who are entitled to a quality education in our schools have faced especially extreme difficulties and there is a lack of attention to their needs which has been a problem with public education for more than 100 years.
In terms of educational options, what solutions do charter schools provide for Hispanic families?
Charter schools give Latino families a choice and an opportunity to become involved in a meaningful way in the education of their children. They can be part of the governance of the school. They can influence what the school offers. They can influence the faculty and the administration in a way that is not readily available in district schools. Their needs are listened to directly. They are stakeholders who are honored and respected—whose voices have weight. That is a huge benefit to Latino parents. Also, they can influence the content in their children’s education, making sure the kinds of classes and offerings are reflective of what they are looking for in their children’s education.
What do you want to tell the presidential candidates about charter schools?
I would tell the Democratic presidential candidates that there has been historic support from progressives. Educational justice and reform today have been carried by charter schools. The 2020 candidates need to immerse themselves in understanding charter schools and the progress they represent in creating educational equity, not just misled by the educational bureaucracy.
What do you want parents to know about charter schools?
Charter schools are an opportunity for parents to have a voice in their children’s education. Being able to be involved in the governance of the school and in the delivery of quality education to their children. Charter schools are committed to the success of your child, your family, and your community.
Kelsey Nelson is the manager for campaigns and publications at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.