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FEATURE A Quiet Revolution BY GEOFF RIPS It doesn’t look like the site of a revolution even a quiet one. As self-effacing, middle-aged principal Salvador Flores stands in the doorway of fifty-year-old Palmer Elementary School greeting students and their parents, you’d be hardpressed to imagine him a revolutionary in the restructuring of public education. But here in these nondescript, one-story classroom wings behind a high fence in Pharr in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, just down the road from the Lloyd Bentsen family compound and due north of the colonias of Las Milpasis the heart of an insurgent statewide effort to democratize education decision-making in Texas to improve the quality of public education. In one of the poorest regions of the state, and of the nation, parents and teachers have taken it upon themselves to reorganize public education based on a model of democratic participation in school decision-making. Parents have moved from Xeroxing to political engagement. And, in the process, their children have achieved unprecedented academic success. “We think we can demonstrate that public school systems can work. Not just a school, but a school system can work,” explained Ernesto Cortes, Jr., director of the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation Network. The network’s twelve Texas community organizations have been responsible for organizing one hundred public schools in the state. These schools are characterized by shared decision-making, political action before school boards and city governments on behalf of their students, and participation in a statewide alliance that has secured increased state funding and important waivers for restructuring these self-styled “Alliance” schools. The I.A.F. is not a newcomer to public school reform. In 1983, finding that their efforts to improve schools in their property-poor school districts continually ran aground on inequitable and inadequate state school finance formulas, I.A.F. Network organizations joined the ongoing battle over public school finance. Working with a state Select Committee on Public Education, chaired by Ross Perot, low-income parents from the I.A.F. organizations sat at the negotiating table in Austin. They also applied constituent pressure for school finance reform on legislators across the state. A special session of the Legislature then passed legislation that Texas school-finance expert Richard Lavine called “the single most progressive reform of Texas school finance.” While the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and others continued to battle in court for greater funding equity, I.A.F. organizations turned their attention to using the new money effectively in the schools their children attended. “Money’s important,” said Ernesto Cortes, “but it’s not the only thing that matters. You’ve got to change the culture of the schools.” I.A.F. organizations set out to make the case for more funding by demonstrating that low-income schools knew how to use the new money. “In part, we got into this business because we found stiff resistance to more equalization,” said Cortes. Fighting the growing conservative opposition to increased public-school support, I.A.F. A Fifth -grade teacher Tracy Southwell Louis Dubose organizations enlisted education commissioners for Governors Ann Richards and George W. Bush in a campaign to persuade the Legislature to shake loose extra millions per year to fund innovations that build parent and community engagement in schools. “It means creating a powerful constituency that is supportive of school reform creating a kind of civic culture which reinforces that school culture,” Cortes said. “You’ve got to have a powerful constituency. That means being able to impact decisions about resources.” Last year, following a rally by 3,000 Alliance school parents on the Capitol steps, the Legislature increased the supplemental funds available to Alliance schools. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is in transition from the near-feudal, agricultural economy that dominated this part of the border for more than one hundred years to the global superhighway that threatens to overrun it. Nearly one million people, 90 percent of them Hispanic, have a per capita income less than half that of the U.S. average, and an unemployment rate between two and three times the national average. For the better part of the past century, large farmers and land speculators, including Lloyd Bentsen Sr., developed and controlled a regional economy that depended upon cheap labor. Housing for this labor was most often provided by carving sections out of farmland and selling small lots without utilities to poor working people, who built their own houses on land in which they had no equity. Las Milpas, founded in 1946, is one such colonia, south of the small town of Pharr and about five miles north of the Rio Grande. APRIL 14, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15