• by Josie Danini Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2013 •

Josie CortezImagine a force of families, schools and community-based organizations who come together to influence education policy and practice at local, state, regional and national levels. With support from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and its Equal Voice for America’s Families Campaign and from the Kresge Foundation, IDRA is helping to catalyze just such a force. For the past six years, we have partnered with 11 community-based organizations (all Marguerite Casey Foundation grantees), the families they serve, and their neighborhood public schools to change the educational landscape of the lower Rio Grande Valley (RGV) and South Texas. We are doing this by intensifying cross-organizational connections and by sharing knowledge and experience that inform parents and families in ways that affect their child’s education.

IDRA does this work knowing that families and communities can play a critical and influential role in changing the status quo, regardless of whether they are wealthy or poor. We know that in the midst of profound poverty and all of the struggles that it brings for families and communities, there is absolutely no poverty of intellect or hope, commitment or capacity in the families and communities themselves. It is this commitment and capacity that IDRA recognizes, supports and strengthens. Nowhere is this alliance for collective impact more urgently needed than in Texas’ current educational and socio-political landscape.

Texas Struggles

The latest Texas on the Brink report states: “Without the courage to invest in the minds of our children and steadfast support for great schools, we face a daunting prospect. Those who value tax cuts over children and budget cuts over college have put Texas at risk in her ability to compete and succeed” (Texas Legislative Study Group, 2012).

Texas at times leads the nation but too often in ways that harm its most vulnerable families and communities. Mike Seifert, network weaver for the Equal Voice RGV Network, recently presented some troubling facts to an audience at IDRA’s presentation for a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Family Engagement Convening. In that session, he shared that Texas is 47th in tax expenditures per capita, with families earning less than $29,000 paying the greatest tax burden (56 percent) compared to families earning $126,000 or more who pay the least (3.6 percent). The state also ranks 43rd in the nation in funding per student (ADA) and 31st in teacher salaries.

Despite Texas’ $1.2 trillion economy, the state has consistently opted for political expediency rather than courageous leadership. In 2011, the state struggled to deal with a projected $27 billion revenue shortfall, only to find itself in 2013 with a surplus of over $10 billion – growth sparked in large part by multi-billion dollar oil-related expansion in South Texas’s gigantic Eagle-Ford Shale deposits. Continued minority population growth, especially in the young Latino population in Texas, coupled with ongoing national and state anti-immigrant hostilities have fueled political polarization leading to voter suppression efforts.

Texas also struggles with a lack of infrastructure in ever-growing numbers of colonias, home to many of the families served by the community-based organizations and schools in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and South Texas. These unincorporated areas flourished after the Reconstruction era and continue today with developers selling tracts of land that have no infrastructure: no drainage, sewer or power to the most vulnerable of families. There are close to 2,300 colonias with 500,000 residents along the South Texas border. And 1,200 colonias are in the lower Rio Grande Valley with: “Men, women and children with dreams no less precious than our own,” Seifert added. Foremost in their dreams is that their children will have a better life than their parents have, and they know that education is key.

Texas’ Opportunities – We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for…

Texas political and educational struggles could have overwhelmed many, but in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, these struggles have been transformed into new opportunities for families and communities to mobilize for equitable and excellent public schools. IDRA has seized these opportunities serving as a strategic resource organization to local community-based organizations that nurture emerging family leadership and provide actionable knowledge that is making a difference in local and state policy and practice.

As part of our work with the Marguerite Casey Foundation, IDRA has developed and is piloting an Equal Voice Family Leadership Curriculum to help family leaders have transformative impact. This curriculum is rooted in the context of an existing network of community-based organizations that are already practicing collective leadership and have built a sustainable network. Based on the Equal Voice Network Family Platform (http://caseygrants.org/equalvoice/), the curriculum has three facets:

  • Energize grassroots advocates by connecting them to the national Equal Voice vision and movement,
  • Expand community leaders’ policy knowledge and ability to impact the political process, and
  • Build on and sustain grassroots advocacy leadership.

Each facet uses proven strategies and activities to: identify key issues; develop materials to support reform efforts; design and implement community-based sessions to inform and mobilize; develop strategies to engage local and state policymakers in reform discussions; design strategies for monitoring action on priority issues; and devise ways to spotlight and celebrate reform achievements.

Specifically, IDRA works with communities to identify key school equity targets, strategies for impacting issues at local and state levels, and ways that the community-based organizations can coordinate with existing advocacy organizations working on critical issues. We help them use IDRA’s bilingual Texas OurSchool data portal that provides focused data on Texas school districts and high schools to foster and support family-school-community partnerships to improve schools. Designed around IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework, the portal includes questions to promote community conversations and provides a framework that local partners can use to plan joint action for improving school holding power and to create and implement strategies for informing local communities of key issues, reform needs and factors impacting reform possibilities.

IDRA also develops culturally and linguistically appropriate materials that support efforts to inform local community members on key issues and reforms needed, including briefing summaries on issues, talking points that can be used by advocates in meetings with local and state policymakers, and specific reforms that can be considered in addressing the issues raised. We conduct community-based sessions to inform and mobilize community actions, including actively engaging youth and families, amplifying their voices as powerful advocates for changes in policy and practice.

One example of this was IDRA’s leadership work with 50 high school students from Brownsville, Texas, colonias served by Proyecto Juan Diego, a Marguerite Casey Foundation grantee. Youth came together to share their ideas and dreams for their families, their neighborhoods and their future. Asked to visualize the “ideal” neighborhoods in Brownsville, youth developed specific projects to make their dreams a reality, ranging from curbing obesity to stopping wage theft.

We help community-based organizations develop strategies to communicate priorities to local and state policy leaders, including superintendents and board members, state legislators and state-level office holders, as well as strategies to monitor actions taken by educators and policymakers and ways to hold them accountable. The groups find means to spotlight and celebrate organizing and policy advocacy efforts that have achieved results for children, using social media and other technology tools to amplify the voices of families as they inform, organize, mobilize and impact change.

In a fair and just world, people who are impacted by decisions that affect the quality of education available in their communities will have an equal voice in those decisions. Families and community-based organizations should have important roles to play in any major decision affecting the quality of their schools. Our work with the Equal Voice RGV Network demonstrates that given the opportunity and the support, all community members can and do contribute to improving education for all children and youth.

Texas: Profound Poverty in the Midst of a $1.2 Trillion Economy
4.6 million Texans live in poverty– 18.5 percent of the population.

One in four Texas children live in low-income families – 1.56 million children.

Texas ranks …

  • 35th in the percentage of revenue for public K-12 schools from state governments.
  • 47th in average SAT combined scores.
  • 44th in the estimated public high school graduation rate.
  • 30th in the percentage of the population with at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • 8th in percentage enrollment in public higher education.
  • 50th in the percentage of population who graduated from high school.

In the 2010-11 school year…

  • 29% of fourth graders read at or above national average NAEP proficiency levels – 3% below national average.
  • 27% of eighth graders read at or above national average NAEP proficiency levels – 5% below national average.
  • 31% of full-time teachers in high poverty middle schools were assigned to teach courses outside their field of expertise.
  • The Teacher Quality Index (TQI) was much lower for teachers in school with the highest minority enrollment than those in schools with the lowest minority enrollment.
  • Only 18% of teachers in high schools with the lowest TQI ratings graduated from high-performing college programs compared to 60 percent from the highest TQI rated high schools.

Source: Texas on the Brink, Sixth Edition (Texas Legislative Study Group, March 2013)


Montemayor, A.M. “PTA Comunitario as a Family Leadership Model – An ‘Investing in Innovation I3 Project,’” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2013).

Posner, L. “Our Schools ~ The Power of Data and Grassroots Organizing,’” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2013).

Robledo Montecel, M., & C.L. Goodman (eds). Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework™ (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Texas Legislative Study Group. Texas on the Brink, Sixth Edition (Austin, Texas: Texas Legislative Study Group, March 2013.

Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2013, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2013 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]