Charlottesville Summit, 30 Years Later: Janet Murguía on the Governors’ Gathering That Changed Education, Setting Goals, Community Engagement & Why CEOs Need to Stand Up for Kids

To commemorate the 1989 Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia,that convened 49 of the nation’s 50 governors to discuss a single policy issue — the education of America’s children — the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program is partnering with The 74 to produce a series of Q&A’s with distinguished leaders across politics, education and advocacy to reflect on the legacy of the summit and what lies ahead for public education. The interviews were conducted over the telephone, transcribed and edited for clarity and length. Participants were asked some of the same questions, but also queried specifically about their careers and backgrounds. These leaders share their thoughts on why the summit was a groundbreaking event, the strengths and shortcomings of education policy and what is required for propelling further gains for students. You can see all the interviews here.

Janet Murguía is president and CEO of UnidosUS, formerly named the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States. Before joining UnidosUS, Murguía served as deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton and was executive vice chancellor for university relations at the University of Kansas, her alma mater. She is the child of Mexican immigrants. Here, Murguía talks about why setting goals is not enough, the need to expand early childhood programs for Latino children and how she would like the business community to stand up for Latino students.

What were the most significant accomplishments from the 1989 education summit and the standards-based agenda that emerged from it?

There was a sense of stronger accountability at the federal and state levels to ensure that there would be equitable education for all students, and especially historically underrepresented and marginalized students, including Latinos and Latinas and our Hispanic cohorts.

How would you characterize the impact of a standards-based agenda on Latino students’ education over these past 30 years?

Building off the momentum from Charlottesville at the time, the National Council of La Raza led a coalition to petition the George H.W. Bush administration to issue an executive order focused on Hispanic education. For us, this was monumental. It was the first time that the federal government created a mechanism to hold itself accountable for the performance of Hispanic students and Latino students.

There’s no question that we were inspired by and moved by that gathering where we saw such interest in accountability. It’s also fair to say part of that impact we’ve had since that gathering was that we helped to shape the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and that was the first piece of major education legislation to hold states and schools accountable for how well they educate Latino children.

That kind of engagement, for us, has continued, and we’ve seen it build since that time. I’m very proud that in the most recent authorization of the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was then changed to the Every Student Succeeds Act, we were instrumental in ensuring that schools would be held accountable for the academic progress of the nearly 5 million English learners.

We have seen Latino students experience major gains since Charlottesville. One is the high school dropout rate among Latino high school students, which was 36 percent in the 1990s — twice as high as for African-American students and four times as high as for whites. Now, the dropout rate for Latino students is less than 10 percent.

In 2017, 23 percent of Latino eighth-graders scored at or above proficient in reading, compared with 45 percent of their white peers, and in eighth-grade math, 20 percent of Latinos scored proficient, compared with 44 percent of their white peers. We have to continue to strengthen the accountability systems we have in place in order to measure how well schools are serving all students.

We’ve seen some of the positive impacts coming out of the Charlottesville convening, but we still have a lot more progress to make. We’ve seen significant demographic changes occurring in the country since that time that mean there should be a more urgent imperative to address accountability as it relates to students of color and, in particular, Latino students.

Since the 1989 Education Summit, what are the lessons learned? What are the unintended consequences that we can see more clearly in hindsight? 

It’s not enough to declare goals in education. You do need a North Star, and setting high standards is part of the equation, but a system of supports and investments also needs to be in place to ensure progress. We have to prioritize education funding and ensure that resources are equitably allocated to benefit students with the highest needs and the schools that serve them. I think Title I grants for local education agencies provide crucial support, and that helps ensure low-income children can meet challenging state academic standards.

But while the Latino public school population has doubled over the past 20 years, three-fourths of Latino students are segregated in high-poverty schools with fewer resources, less access to advanced coursework and lower high school completion rates. So we’ve got to make sure we’re setting goals and making sure we’re clear about the standards that we want to meet, but we also need investments targeted in the right ways and in the right places so that these students can be fully able to participate in education.


“We need a rising tide, so we need the investments and the resources, but we also need to recognize that a rising tide by itself doesn’t always lift all boats. We have to be very intentional about how we’re going to connect best with the students who need to be served.”

In addition, we could do more to support teacher preparation in the education of English learners (EL), because we know that most teachers are going to encounter an EL student in their classroom at some point, and while the EL population has grown 60 percent over the past two decades, federal funds for ELs have increased by — wait for it — 1 percent since 2009. That’s just unacceptable.

In 2016, 32 states reported not having enough qualified teachers to teach English learners. There are red flags being waved left and right, and yet we still haven’t seen the response that we should.

In terms of lessons learned: One, we need a rising tide, so we need the investments and the resources, but we also need to recognize that a rising tide by itself doesn’t always lift all boats. We have to be very intentional about how we’re going to connect best with the students who need to be served.

The other lesson is we need to invest in our students well before they enter the K-12 system and expand access to high-quality early-childhood education.

Although Latino children are the fastest-growing segment of the child population, they have the lowest enrollment in early childhood education programs. Something’s really wrong when you have a fact like that. We need to expand Head Start and school readiness programs that provide early childhood education, health and nutrition programs that would help us reverse that trend. Nationwide, 37 percent of Head Start students are Latino, but there are many more who are eligible who lack access due to limited slots.

Coming out of 1989, there was not just bipartisan support, there were also interesting alliances built across civil rights organizations and the business community. It feels like there’s less of that consensus right now. Do you agree? What do you think it will take to reinvigorate that kind of coalition?

There’s no question that there are some fractures. Strong leadership and someone who can unify the country around a common vision for education goals that include everyone would help a lot.

These needs and inequities across our education system are tough, and it’s hard enough to figure out how we can come together, but when you have someone who’s exploiting divisions and not creating a common vision for how we can get on a path to an inclusive education system that provides a quality education for everyone, you’re going to have folks who are going to retreat to their corners and fight for themselves.

You have a unique role of having a network of local community-based organizations, governors’ offices, and state and federal policymakers. What do you wish local community leaders and families understood better about education policy? What do you wish policymakers understood better about the aspirations and realities of the families that you’re trying to serve?

Where I feel like we have the greatest potential is in making sure that our community is engaged and knowledgeable about where they can weigh in on behalf of their children. So, parental involvement, educating community leaders about who makes decisions where, about better using the policies that affect how their children are educated, and the resources that are tied to them, are important levers for us. Advocacy, I think, is emerging as the most important tool in our toolbox to use in reinforcing accountability.

One of the tensions that continues to play out that we also saw during No Child Left Behind is the push and pull between federal and state government and who has more control over education. The fact is, education requires a partnership between states and the federal government. Both are responsible in serving our students.

We can make sure that our parents and community leaders know where they can play a role in that, whether it’s making sure they have the right information to know how they can engage at the local level, and to know where candidates stand on education. Are they going to put a stake in the ground to create a vision for an education system that will be supported at the federal level and complement what folks can do at the state and local levels? Can they demand that of candidates who are running for president today and use information to share about what should be included in commentaries by any of the candidates?

If you could convene a summit to focus on the most important issues facing us in the future, what you would organize? Whom would you invite?

It was great that we had the 49 governors and that state governments really put a stake in the ground when we last convened, but I do think the future solutions that are going to be created for our country, and this is true at the state and local levels, are going to require public-private partnerships. We have to have not just governors invested and not just even a president, which would help a lot, but the private sector has to play a bigger role.

Many of them came out and embraced a lot of the efforts to create standards, and many, as a result, endorsed the charter school movement. We need to make sure the voice of the private sector is engaged on behalf of all our students.

There could be more done by the private sector and leaders to bridge a set of policy goals that would advance all our public education system. As much as you hear CEOs advocate for tax reforms that benefit their companies, they have a future workforce that they need to be focused on and they need to be doing more to advocate for policies that will impact all their future workers — and that means all our students.

I would like to hear a stronger voice by CEOs and leaders in the private sector on behalf of access to early childhood education, and when folks are testifying on behalf of expanded Head Start, when their lobbyists are on the Hill advocating for any kind of tax reforms or tax cuts, it’d sure be nice for their list to include — and high on their list — access to early childhood education, access to tech-based STEM and STEAM.

I’d like to see a convening that reflects community leaders, state and local education players, higher education. We’re seeing our Latino students not having the success they need to have now that we’ve reduced the high school graduation dropout rate to less than 10 percent. They’re not being retained and they’re not succeeding at college. We need to make sure that the private sector’s invested in that, as well as states and the federal government.

We’re all going to have to rely on these students and make sure that they’re getting the right investments and the access to the quality education they deserve, not just because it’s going to benefit our communities, but because it’s going to have an integral impact on the economic success of our country. That point is not being made enough by individuals outside of ourselves today, outside of leaders who represent these constituencies.

We need more leadership at the federal level, more leadership at the state level, and the private sectors to step up and think about the role that they can play, not just in enhancing a part of our education system, but how can they really help and weigh in on policy reforms on behalf of all of our education system.

Ross Wiener is vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of its Education & Society Program. Previously, he was vice president for program and policy at the Education Trust and a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section.

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