Twenty-nine years ago, Montserrat Garibay left Mexico City for Texas with her mother and sister. They were undocumented. At a public middle school in Austin, Garibay learned English. Later, she and her sister founded one of the first organizations nationwide of so-called Dreamers, young immigrants pushing for U.S. citizenship. Garibay became a citizen herself in 2012. In Austin, she worked as a pre-K teacher, then as an official in the local teachers union. She then served as the first Latina secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO, the state’s major union federation. This spring, she’s on her way to Washington, D.C., where she’ll work for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona as senior adviser for labor relations—a liaison position between unions and the Education Department that was scrapped during the Trump administration and resurrected this year under Joe Biden.
Garibay enters a fraught arena, as teachers unions around the country have fought both Republican and Democratic leaders to secure safe working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Observer spoke with her about school reopenings, teacher diversity, and the American dream.
Reopening schools this year has caused conflict among unions, school administrators, and politicians across the country. What should happen with reopening, and what is your new role in managing these conflicts?
It’s not easy. My role essentially is trying to hear all the different perspectives and share that information with Dr. Cardona. I talk to teachers in Austin, and there are many who want to stay home because of health issues. But there’s also teachers who are very close to the low [socioeconomic status] students and understand that a lot of those students don’t have access to internet at home, that their parents are taking them to the abuelitas or the tías where they don’t have internet, and they’re not connecting to their studies. So there’s a lot of different perspectives, and my role is to dig in and report what I heard.
Do you feel teachers have been respected during the pandemic?
No. Just here in Texas, the governor that we have, it’s been very challenging. I talk to teachers who love teaching and have given so many years of their life, and they have retired. Some of them have left education because they don’t feel they have been respected. That’s one of the hardest things I have seen, because we’ve lost a lot of really good educators. Now, there’s other states that are doing things differently. I see the ones that are collective bargaining states, where they have the ability to negotiate with their unions, and they’re coming up with very interesting and detailed ways of how to go back to the classroom. And we’re looking at those examples, because they can provide a path for those states that don’t have collective bargaining.
Looking beyond COVID-19, what are some issues you’re excited to address from D.C.?
We need more teachers of color in our classrooms. There’s different approaches, and there’s really interesting ways to do a teacher pipeline. At [the University of Texas at Austin] when I did my master’s, I was part of Proyecto Maestría, which was a cohort of bilingual minority teachers, where they really taught us how to do bilingual education that had a social justice aspect. Programs like that are key because our children need to see people that look like me and them as their educators.
Also, teacher compensation is key. A lot of teachers, and I myself when I was a teacher, have another job. I was a waitress on Saturday and Sunday because I just didn’t have enough money. When I have conversations with high school students and I ask them, “What is it that you want to be?” and they don’t say, “I want to be a teacher”’ I always wonder. So I ask, “Why not a teacher?” and they’re like, “Because teachers don’t make money.” Of course, you don’t become a teacher to make a lot of money; you become a teacher to be part of something bigger than yourself, which is educating your students. But if we paid teachers better, so they could have only one job, I think that would professionalize teaching.
As a proponent of teachers unions, do you think charter schools are bad for the public school system?
In my personal opinion, yes. I feel that the resources need to be given to public schools because they’re open for every child, whether you’re an English-language learner, whether you have a disability. And unfortunately, charter schools don’t have the same checks and balances; they get to pick and choose the students they enroll.
You see commercials that say if you go to this charter school, your child is going to go to college. Well, I think getting to college is easy; graduating from college, that’s the hard thing. All these charter schools say students are going to enroll in a four-year college, but when you look at the numbers, very few actually finish. And I look at the community schools model [which combines an array of social and economic services with the traditional neighborhood public school] that Austin ISD has, and I see it’s very successful because it’s the hub of the community. And it’s providing an opportunity to go to community college while students are in high school, and that really helps them get a jump-start. This is one of the great things we need to be highlighting more.
You came to the U.S. when you were middle-school-age. You didn’t speak English. Now you’re off to work for Secretary Cardona, who was also an English-language learner as a kid. Could you reflect on that?
I have this picture of my first day of school: my mom, my sister, and I. And when I decided to take this job, I kept thinking about that picture and how scared I was on my first day of school because, on top of not speaking English, we were undocumented.
And when I started going through the process of possibly taking this job, I said yes because I want to make sure every child has the opportunity to have a quality education, no matter where they live. And I feel this deep commitment to give back to teachers, to public education, because I found my voice and found hope in the public schools. I want to make sure that each child can reach their full potential, just like I did 29 years ago.
What are your plans for coming back to Texas?
I don’t know how long this job is going to be. Two, four, eight years. But my desire is to come back to Texas, because Texas is home. And not only that, there’s so much potential here. What I saw happen in Georgia with elections, I feel Texas is on that path. It’s going to take quite a few years. But I would love to come back and be able to help, to register people to vote, and at the end of the day, be here in my beloved Austin.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.