Who We Are

In his words…

Dr. José A. Cárdenas, IDRA founder and director emeritus

“If students are faltering, failing, or leaving school, then their schools – not the students – need to change in fundamental ways.”

“Every child has the right to a quality education.”

“I remember sometimes saying that I was born with my right foot in the United States and my left foot in Mexico. I specifically designate my left foot as the Spanish-speaking one because I was taught in the U.S. Army that the left foot always comes first, and Spanish was my first language.”

“One of the myths that was perpetuated for years and years, and is still present, is that there are better schools in some areas of town because they sacrifice and spend more money for the education of the children.”

“During this 25-year period the financing of Texas schools has been consistently inequitable and inadequate. There has been no shortage of alternatives available to the educational and political leadership of the state. The failure to resolve the problem can be attributed primarily to the failure of the legislature to bite the bullet and do what decency, justice, common sense and the best interests of the state demand that be done. Instead, the legislature has squandered time and resources in inaction, postponement, studies, expensive Band-Aids and the enactment of emasculating “save-harmless” provisions that have perpetuated the problem. Politically popular positions, such as “No New State Taxes,” have only succeeded in passing the buck to communities that can least afford an additional and inequitable tax burden. Funds for school facilities should have been a part of the reform effort since its beginning.”

“What started out in the 1960s as a quest for equal rights and justice became a national economic imperative… The failure of the educational system to produce a skilled worker is not only a personal loss for the underperforming student, it is an unaffordable resource loss to the community, the state and the country.”

“Equality of educational opportunity implies giving to each child an opportunity for unlimited success in the educational system. Each child must have the opportunity to develop to his or her maximum self-realization… In order for equality of educational opportunity to exist in school instructional programs, it is necessary that schools have the necessary resources for the development and implementation of adequate programs.”

Selected Quotes from Texas School Finance Reform: An IDRA Perspective 

…on School Finance Reform
“In retrospect, I can only say that I’m grateful that nobody was opposed to the equitable system since it took 22 additional years, including 10 years of additional litigation, to achieve an only partially equitable system. If there had been real opposition, it may have taken several hundred years to get there.”

“Low wealth school districts may have a problem with a program that provides resources on the basis of gains, when the major impediment to making gains is the lack of resources.”

…on the Edgewood Schools
“The students had drawn typewriter keyboards on pieces of cardboard and were practicing their typing on non existing typewriters, their fingers hitting the places in the cardboard where the letters were depicted.”

…on School Finance Study Groups
“Projections for other low wealth districts did not look too promising, but the blue ribbon panel, in its infinite wisdom, added a ‘hold harmless’ provision. This thoughtful provision prevents poor school districts from receiving less state aid in the first year of implementation than they received before the reform recommendations.”

…on Taxation
“California tax opponent Howard Jarvis gladly came to Texas ‘which ranked 49th in tax effort’ and provided his experience, expertise and support to a similar effort in this state, an exceptional example of a man with a solution in search of a problem.”

“If the legislators allow the courts to close the schools, 3.5 million kids will be sent home. It would be only a matter of days before the Texas electorate would realize that there are worse things in life than taxation.”

…on School Finance Legislation
“Gov. Briscoe promptly called two special sessions to deal with property taxation. The first session was followed by a second session to correct the mistakes of the first session.”

“The entire legislative effort came to naught as the special session concluded without a school finance alternative [in 1990]. For the 15th time since the reversal of Rodriguez, the Texas Legislature found itself addressing school finance as the highest legislative priority. In spite of the Supreme Court ruling, legislators concluded with the typical attitude, ‘That’s the best we can do – take it or leave it.’”

…on School Finance Litigation
“If one asks what Gov. Dolph Briscoe was thinking concerning Rodriguez in the period between the three judge decision and the Supreme Court decision (15 months), the closest answer is that he was not.”

…on School Facilities
“The findings of the experts [on school facilities needs] were so embarrassing and created such a legal liability for the state that the study was never released by the governor.”

…on Future Equity Issues
“Since the courts and subsequent legislative action have reduced the opportunity for the privileged to attain superior educational opportunities for their children at the expense of children in other school districts, attempts will be made to attain the same superior educational opportunities at the expense of other children in the same school district.”

Selected Quotes from All Pianos Have Keys and Other Stories

“The seriousness of my professional life has been paralleled by extensive humor in my personal life. I enjoy a funny story and a good joke,” – Preface.

El Turnio Tobin
“The next morning, Tony and I rode out in his pickup truck with the ample supply of campaign signs. As was customary, he prescribed the division of labor between us. He selected the sites where a sign should be posted, while I was assigned the task of putting up the sign.

Without stakes, the task proved to be much harder than we had assumed. It was illegal to post the signs on utility posts, and trees and barb wire fences were not too cooperative in displaying the signs so that they could be easily seen from the highway.

As the thermometer moved closer to 100 degrees, Tony decided the results didn’t justify the effort. “Lets go down to the ice house in Gonzalitos and figure out something else,” he said.

As we arrived at the ice house on the highway, Tony, as was his custom, immediately noticed a maroon pickup truck parked in front of the ice house.

“I wonder what cousin Oscar is doing out here?”

“I don’t know, but look at what he’s got in his pickup,” I replied. The back of cousin Oscar’s pickup had a stack of campaign signs promoting a candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission. With the signs was an abundant supply of wooden stakes.

“I think we have solved our problem,” said Tony. “Let’s go inside and work up a deal. You just keep your mouth shut and let me do all the talking.”

The Dining Room Table
Part of the tour included visits to several of the many migrant camps, temporary housing provided for migrant agricultural workers and their families as they harvested the [California] crops.

I was amazed to see thousands of undocumented aliens undetected by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In Texas, INS scatters sand along the border, and the immigration officers, looking like John Wayne scouting around Fort Apache , check several times a day for footprints which indicate that someone has walked through there. If they find a footprint, they then follow up using four wheel drive vehicles, horses, airplanes and even helicopters in their attempts to capture each and every alien that may have entered the country illegally.

In Texas, all major roads leading from the border have checkpoints at which each and every vehicle is stopped and inspected for the presence of undocumented aliens. In California, they were being moved up and down to different fields along the major highways, by the bus load, in broad daylight without drawing the suspicion of the “migra” (INS).

Maybe I just happened to make my observations at the wrong time of the year, that is, during the harvest season when there is a beautiful symbiotic relationship between agriculture and the INS. Once all the crops are in, INS is shocked to learn that there are undocumented aliens in the region, and all hell breaks loose, resulting in a massive effort at apprehension and expulsion. Then the California governor expounds on how all of the state’s problems stem from the unwanted flow of undocumented aliens and their drain of public money through their extensive demands on schooling and other social services.

King Antonio’s Exile
The Fiesta situation became so precarious that the commission called for a meeting with me and other representatives of minority organizations. The meeting chairman recapped the existing situation and surprised us by readily admitting that the entire problem had been created by the exclusion of minorities from Fiesta activities. In a brilliant machiavellian move, he informed the audience that the Fiesta Commission was ready to rectify this past exclusion by adding additional events to the Fiesta agenda for minority participation, particularly fund-raising events for minority organizations.

When I was playing in the Martin High School band in Laredo, we used to amuse the audience during the half-time football show by putting on what we called the Dumb Drum Major routine. In the marching event, the drum major would lead the band and consistently mess up by making a turn while the rest of the band continued straight down the field, or he would go straight while the entire band went in an opposite direction, much to the delight of the spectators. By the end of that meeting with the Fiesta Commission, I felt like the dumbest drum major in the state.

In no time at all, the minority organizations signed on as sponsors of Fiesta activities. I left the meeting before its conclusion, painfully aware of the triumph of pragmatism over principle, and not wanting to see my minority colleagues groveling over the bones tossed to them by the Fiesta Commission, in much the same manner that their children had groveled in the dirt over the coins tossed to them by King Antonio…

All Pianos Have Keys
One day when I had been at school for almost six weeks, I interrupted my cat drawings to peek at the instructional activity. I wish I could say that I was captivated by what I saw and heard, but this really was not so. The teacher was conducting some exercise in which a statement is made and the students repeated it. I didn’t find out until much later that this procedure is called “modeling” and is essential to language development or at least essential to English-as-a-second-language development. I wasn’t impressed then because if I had tried to learn Spanish by repeating everything my parents said I would have been called a “perico” (parrot) or accused of “burlando” (mimicking) and would have never lived long enough to enter the first grade…

The teacher had said, “All pianos have keys,” and the class repeated it. Again and again…

Herein lies the treachery of the word. The Anglos, unknown to me at the time, use the word “keys” to refer to two things, the black and white things which you punch down to make a piano play, which we call “teclas,” and the small thin instruments which lock and unlock things, which we call “llaves”…

The kid had given me the wrong translation…

“All pianos have keys” then became a grievous error. How disappointing to find out after only six weeks of school that the teacher could err. How I wished I had been spared that terrible reality at least until I was old enough to know about the infallibility of books. “It is so because it is in the book” can become a valuable security blanket for a child who has just learned that, “It is so because the teacher says so,” is only a myth…

“All pianos have keys. If you have a piano at home which does not have keys, then it is not any good, it doesn’t play. All good pianos have keys.”…

Even today I can still remember that horror. Out of a sense of duty, out of a sense of caballerosidad, which misinformed Anglo anthropologists sometimes call “machismo,” I had volunteered to help the teacher, and the help was not only rejected, but this was coupled with an insidious attack on the quality of our piano.

Selected Quotes from Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy

The Role of Native-Language Instruction in Bilingual Education
…Consider the movie portraying the story of Helen Keller’s early life, The Miracle Worker. Totally deprived of sight and hearing, young Helen lived an animal-like existence – not even aware of the existence of the language that would enable her to communicate with the world. The climax of the movie occurs when she realizes that the hand movements and spellings that her tutor has been trying to each her constitute language, a method of interpersonal communication. In that scene we see Helen Keller leave her minimally human existence by acquiring the power of language; we see, too, her transformation into an eager and voracious learner.

The placement of a language-minority child into an all-English curriculum before the child has achieved sufficient mastery of the English language is like running The Miracle Worker in reverse. We take an eager and voracious learner and remove the power of language, thereby sentencing the child to an animal-like existence until such time as the child acquires sufficient fluency in a different language.

…Instructional programs designed for the cultural mainstream provided little compatibility between the educational system and the unique characteristics of different segments of the population…

The inevitable prescription for the under-performance of atypical students became an increase in the dose of traditional programs. The school focused its energies, its time and its resources in doing the wrong things better, in doing the wrong things longer, in doing the wrong things more often. Students who did not perform well during the regular nine months of instruction were given additional schooling during the summer months, invariably using the same materials, methodologies and teachers that had proved unsuccessful during the regular term…

George Santayana observed that a people ignorant of its history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. It behooves us to look at the history of the early era of minority education, understand its relationship to current educational conditions and problems, and seek new avenues in our present efforts to extend educational opportunity to all.

Undocumented Children
…I consider my participation in the undocumented immigrant children litigation [Doe vs. Plyler, Multiple District Litigation] as one of the most satisfying educational experiences of my life. It exemplifies the altruistic nature of IDRA and its staff. I was asked frequently what hidden strategy underlined our participation in the suits, and how such participation related to some master plan. There was no hidden strategy; there was no master plan. The undocumented children were being abused by the educational system of Texas, and as advocates of children we came to their aid…

It is disillusioning to find the United States’ commitment to children to be as shallow as was evident during the period of undocumented children exclusion…

During the entire litigation, the educational leadership of the state was unique in providing objections, excuses, false estimates, invalid research findings and erroneous testimony in an incomprehensible attempt to exclude these children from the public schools of Texas     …

Members of the educational leadership continued to oppose the enrollment of the children without regard to the fact that [these] children would subsequently become adult legal residents of this country without any school attendance nor academic skills…

Perhaps the biggest concern is the apparent lack of public understanding and appreciation for the equal-protection clause of the United States Constitution. This protection is extended to all persons in the country, regardless of citizenship, residence or documented status. During the trial, it was mentioned by the state that Mexico did not extend civil rights nor educational privileges to illegal immigrants. It is demeaning for us to lower our civil rights status in keeping with standards of Third World countries, rather than serve as a model for them to emulate.

A New Educational Paradigm
…This poor performance by a large and growing segment of the school population takes on a new importance in the light of the recent economic transformation in our country. The minorities and disadvantaged who were not served adequately by the school form the nucleus of a cheap, unskilled labor pool necessary in an agricultural, mineral and industrial economy. Urban centers, where 80 and 90 percent of the non-mainstream students dropped out of school without acquiring even a minimal literacy capability, even capitalized on the inefficiency of the school by advertising cheap, unskilled labor in attempts to bring business and industry into the community.

The change in the economy to information, services and technology creates two new problems in dealing with the failures of the schools. First, the cheap, unskilled labor is no longer marketable. Industries requiring cheap labor can acquire it in third world countries at a fraction of what it costs in the United States. The implementation of new international free trade agreements will institutionalize the acquisition of cheap labor elsewhere and accentuate the obsolescence of a cheap labor force in the United States.

Second, the cost of non-education continues to rise, creating a budget crisis at each level of government …Not only are the school failures increasingly non-productive, they have also become a serious drain upon the productive segment of our community.