“In my mind the system did discriminate probably the worse against Mexican Americans, almost all the kids in the very poorest districts were mostly Mexican American.”- Dr. Albert Kauffman (A.K.) 1 The 1960s was a period of counter culture where social norms were reclassified and individual freedoms were extracted from earlier social restrictions. The fight for civil rights began with widespread protests from lunch counters, busing and sanitation strikes, to school walkouts. Minorities across the country faced with countless forms of racial discrimination, had no choice but to speak up for themselves and demand they be treated equally in practice and in the eyes of the law. The rise of the civil rights movement gave inspiration to many people around the United States; leading minorities and others to fight for equal rights. Despite resistance from the federal government, the American people showed that change can happen if the people demand it repeatedly and peacefully. The drive for Chicano rights was one of these new areas for the civil rights movement. Particularly, the Chicano Student Movement which emerged in 1960’s and took a stand against racial injustice and inequality in the public schools. The Chicano walkouts were landmark events in United States history, and only begin helping us learn about the Chicano student protests here in South Texas, in our own city of San Antonio, with support from students who were attending St Mary’s University. 2
Leaders in the Chicano movement such as Cesar Chavez, Reis Lopez Tijerina, Rodolfo Gonzalez, and Robert Kennedy inspired students to challenge the system for their equal rights. In 1968, Edgewood High School along with Lanier High School students decided to walk out of school to protest the inequality they suffered every day. These were some of the earliest major Chicano student protests in South Texas which marked the beginning of the Chicano Student Movement in our own city. Edgewood and Lanier students expressed how they were dissatisfied with the handling of Chicano students and the discriminatory behavior towards them.3 Throughout the South Texas region, school educators treated Chicano students unfairly. For example, they were prohibited from speaking Spanish on school grounds, their school were underfunded, without books or with only much older outdated versions of the books deemed no longer usable at schools with White children. The poorest schools often were missing basic necessities, like toilet paper. Schools separated Chicano students from Anglo students. Students of Mexican American descent could not often rise to the highest levels of achievement because of the conditions and lack of support they received. Students decided that walking out or boycotting classes would be the proper and peaceful way to protest against these injustices. Mexican American students realized their schools received less funding, providing for only an inferior level of education in comparison to wealthier schools in the area. Lanier and Edgewood on San Antonio’s West side in working class neighborhoods that were less affluent brought in lower amounts of property taxes. During the time of the walkouts in 1968. Young Mexican American students worried that their curriculum was inadequate which forced them into low paying trades, vocational classes, or to enlist in the military for the Vietnam War. Mexican Americans were dying at a much higher rate than any other ethnicity as military recruitment also targeted them in higher numbers.4 One of the other open forms of abuse for elementary students who spoke Spanish was receiving physical punishment for speaking Spanish in school. Education became a source of trauma for many young Mexican Americans. Some students only knew Spanish and were prohibited from speaking it at school, with such a language barrier, many students were held back. A former student admits, “I was learning English if for no other reason than for survival.”5 Racism was also apparent in the practice of local school administrators who were trying to Americanize Chicano students whose culture educators deemed inferior.
Mexican American students in the 1960s were not offered the same educational opportunities as affluent white students in San Antonio and this led to an investigation by the United States Commission on Civil Rights. During the investigation students began to recall the unfair treatment that Mexican American students were facing by the school. Irene Ramirez, a senior at Lanier high school at the time, recalled an instance when she was punished by school administrators for conversing in Spanish inside the classroom. Ramirez explains that the disciplinary action for speaking Spanish in the classroom was being paddled by the dean of girls. Ramirez said she felt embarrassed and ashamed.6
Students suffered abuse for speaking their mother tongue: Spanish. Former student, Edgar Lozano, also reflects on how he was treated: “How would you like for somebody to come up to you and tell you what you speak is a dirty language… A teacher comes up to you and tells you: No, no, you know, that is a filthy language, nothing but bad words and bad thoughts in that language.” Undoubtedly Edgar Lozano felt that the awful stigma of Mexican Americans really stuck with him throughout his childhood.7 The stigma placed on these young students was unfair and unjust and clearly racist. Students from Lanier recall that few teachers ever talked to the students about any college aspirations. An investigator from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights asked a student, was anyone “ever brought into the school like a lawyer or educator to urge students to enter those professions?” Garcia, the student who was asked the question answered, “No, sir. Before this year all we had was – well, criminals were brought in from the penitentiaries to encourage us not to go into the life of crime.”8 However, at the time that lower income schools were providing criminals to speak with children, other affluent schools in the area invited astronauts, engineers, and well known politicians to speak to their students.9 Pupils in lower income areas were not given a proper education, particularly the ones who needed it the most. Mexican American students were also targeted to enter into vocational programs with low level curricula by school counselors, which perpetuated the unequal school system. Students felt their heritage was being eroded away by the school system by being shielded from their own heritage and only learning the Anglo side of history. Evidence by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights showed that the schools curriculum reinforced Anglo superiority while perpetuating negative stereotypes about Hispanic and fostering a sense of Anglo superiority. For example, many students were taught historical myths about Mexican Americans that their culture was somehow culturally and racially inferior to Anglo culture and further degraded all other minorities. Curriculum was a huge issue but even more so were the people teaching the curriculum. Schools with low budgets often had to hire under-qualified teachers throughout the area. Edgewood High had the highest number of teachers in the city without a college degree and teachers who did have a degree were paid substantially lower salaries than teachers in wealthier districts. The school’s facilities were in rundown conditions with no air conditioning, missing basic necessities from lack of books to no toilet paper inside the restrooms.10 Students who would travel to other schools for University Interscholastic League (UIL) competitions for debate, sports, and other extra curricular activities would see what they did not have. In the richer districts hallways were not dark, classroom walls paint did not peel, chairs and desks stood in good condition, and students had each their own books, which was nothing like what they experienced at their own schools.11
Mexican American students throughout the state of Texas called for mandatory reforms. Mexican American students were not going to sit back and watch generations of kids go through a revolving door of poverty, jail, low income jobs, and inadequate education. During this time, wide protests among Chicano students grew around the nation primarily through peaceful walkouts to fight for educational reform. In 1968, students began organizing a demonstration approximately a month before the walkout officially happened. Students can recall being afraid of retribution from the school and from their parents. Students who were seniors at Edgewood High were told that they would not cross the stage if they participated in the walkouts. Athletes were warned that they would not be on the teams anymore if they decided to protest. “We knew what we were doing and we knew that there might be a price to pay both at school and at home,” says Rebecca Pena Ortiz.12 The frustrations of the students were felt throughout the campus. Students were very aware of the unequal treatment in their lower income schools. Students understood the important value of the sacrifice to walkout, they knew they could influence their future and the future of the entire educational system. Roger Lloyd, former student at Edgewood high, recalls the feeling on the day of the walkout, “I remember the day because I felt kind of uneasy… Something was going on but I couldn’t put my finger on it.” 13 Teachers tried to stop the students by barricading the hallways and doors. The educators were screaming at the students not to leave. Richard Herrera, another former Edgewood High student, recalls the day of the walkout, “You’re not coming through this door! Nobody leaves!” His teacher, Miss Mooney, shouted as she stood in front of the door. “You’re not leaving.” Herrera recounts his brother, a lower classman, coming through the door, he demanded, “C’mon Rich, let’s go.” Herrera continues, “…And Miss Mooney’s in the way so what he does he starts pushing the door, pushing the door and eventually moves her out of the way, and we just all flowed out. Well over 400 kids.” 14 Students began to march to the main office of Bennie Steinhauser, the superintendent. Students knew future generations could benefit from what they were trying to accomplish. Ortiz, former Edgewood high student, expressed, “It may not be us. It may not be in our time. But it could happen.”15 Indeed, they were correct their actions resulted in generations of fights to improve school funding and the education provided to all students in the state. But the fight was not won by walkouts only, and many setbacks were also to come.
These walkouts were important to the Chicano community because these provided the corner stones on which reforms were build to improve what was a disastrous school system. Within 5 years of the walkouts, the superintend was forced to resign and there was new school bard put into place with young Chicano progressives in charge.[ 16. Academia America, 7th Annual Dia de la Raza Commemoration, Conference, San Antonio Texas, October 11, 2018.] These new board members including the new superintendent were advocates and helped tremendously in the Edgewood case. However, the State of Texas itself did not pass school reform until a much later time. In fact, it took sixteen years, on May 23, 1984, in Travis County, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed a lawsuit against the commissioner of education, William Kirby, on behalf of the Edgewood Independent School District. They claimed discrimination against students in lower income districts and found that the state’s method for funding public schools was in violation of four different principles in the Texas State Constitution. Mainly, the state depended on property taxes to fund the schools, which was inherently unequal. “Texas has a school finance system in which most of the funds are generated based on taxes on property values in the school district, with the share of state and local funding varying over the years from 43% state-57% local to 38% state-62% local.”16 Values were drastically different throughout the city, according to the Texas Supreme Court Case record: “Edgewood ISD had $38,854 in property wealth per student, while Alamo Heights ISD had $570,109 per student.” 17 The case filed by MALDEF brings us back to Attorney Albert Kaufmann who had been hired by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund in 1974 and spearheaded the battle to the Supreme Court. The Texas Education Association showed the disparity between states and local revenues from affluent and less affluent school districts. The poorest district in the state,” San Elizario I.S.D., did not offer any foreign language, Pre-K program, chemistry, physics, calculus, and no college preparatory or honors program. Also, they provided no extracurricular activities like debate, band, or football” 18
After a long wait, in 1989, a little over 20 years from the the original Chicano walkouts, the Texas State Supreme Court held that the “present system of financing public education is unconstitutional due to the reliance on local property taxes. The property values vary greatly among districts, creating inequitable revenues per student.”19 The Texas State Supreme court rendered a resounding decision, with a unanimous 9-0 decision which sided with the Edgewood plaintiffs and held that the state legislature had to implement an equitable system by the 1990-1991 school year.20 A plan was not agreed upon until January 1995 when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the “options plan was constitutional but legislature still needed to work on equalizing and improving school facilities throughout the State.” 21 “Under the plan, each school district would help to equalize funding through one of five methods: (1) merging its tax base with a poorer district, (2) sending money to the state to help pay for students in poorer districts, (3) contracting to educate students in other districts, (4) consolidating voluntarily with one or more other districts, or (5) transferring some of its commercial taxable property to another districts tax rolls. If a district did not choose one of these options, the state would order the transfer of taxable property; if this measure failed to reduce the district’s property wealth to $280,000 per student, the state would force a consolidation. 22 “The Texas Supreme Court’s Edgewood v. Kirby1 decisions were the hammer that forced the Texas legislature to create a significantly more equitable Texas school finance system. The cases were also factors in increasing the overall funding for the system and the significantly higher funding in Texas low-wealth districts.”[ 23. Kauffman, Albert. “The Texas School Finance Litigation Saga: Great Progress, Then Near Death By A Thousand Cuts”. ( 2009), 512.]
Texas Education reform is still a complex issue to this day. However, brave students like Irene Ramirez, Edgar Lozano, Rebecca Pena Ortiz, Richard Herrera and countless others demonstrated that reform can happen by peacefully demanding change. This gave hope for community engagement, which emboldened many Chicano political activists to continue fighting to change the education system for all Mexican American students for generations. Due too the courage and insight of these students, all minorities in South Texas, including Mexican Americans can seize opportunities and pursue paths to success. The lead attorney in The Edgewood ISD V. Kirby case Dr. Albert Kaufman was gracious enough to meet and give an interview on September 17th, 2018 what follows is an excerpt of the exchange during the interview I, Julian Aguero (J.A.), conducted with him. I asked him why he and his team were fighting for the rights of Mexican American students but all the poorer districts in the State. A.K answered: That’s right the lawsuit was brought on the behalf of all the students in the poor districts but when we filed the lawsuit we also included a claim saying that it discriminated against Mexican Americans […] In my mind the system did discriminate probably the worse against Mexican Americans, almost all the kids in the very poorest district were mostly Mexican American. J.A. : What would you say to people who want to make a difference in education. A.K. : First of all, be sure to vote, a lot of this is caused by who is elected to run our state […] I also think that there needs to be a lot more work in this area, people want to go to law school, work in political science, or work in education directly. There is so much more to do. J.A. What do you remember as your highest moment in the fight, and what was the lowest moment? A.K.: The highest moment was when we won the supreme court case in 1989, the first case that declared the system unconstitutional, we had a big celebration with the Edgewood School District, we had a gigantic event at the stadium with about two to three thousand students and we spoke to them and everyone was applauding. It was a very very good day. There are a few (bad days) the 1995 decision was sad for me which was the fourth one because I thought we still had a strong equity case and the supreme court basically just almost wrote it out of the law. And I saw the writing on the wall that they would never be as strong on the case as they had been previously. J.A.: How do I persuade people that this issue is something that still needs our attention.
A.K.: Educational opportunity is the only way we are really going to give all of our population the ability to function. Unless they had a good education they can’t function and our whole society will suffer. It is not just one group [that is affected] and our country long term cannot last if we have 5 or 10% of the people with all the money and all the power. Everybody needs to have opportunity.23
Many Scholars in this movement such as Albert Kaufman see the Edgewood case as effective by forcing legislature to recognize the conditions of poor school districts which forced them to provided better funding. However, Texas legislature is in a constant battle to still find an adequate system for all. Experiencing these types of discussions with people in the movement made me notice how much work has been done in order for change to happen and how much still needs to be done. The fight is far from over and organizations such as MALDEF and many others who also fight for education rights and civil rights still exist to this day. Great work has been done but there is much more to do.