With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Erika Beltran will be the newest member of the State Board of Education, representing the Dallas and Fort Worth-based District 13. Although seven seats on the 15-member board were up for grabs on Nov. 4, all the others elected were incumbents. Beltran has worked as a public school teacher and, after earning a Master of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, became an education policy advocate. Beltran currently works with Teach for America Corps developing leadership skills.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: What drove you to run for a position on the State Board of Education?
Erika Beltran: I grew up in District 13, in Fort Worth. Every school that I attended is actually part of the district, so I’m a product of District 13 public schools. To be quite frank, when I left for college I felt very underprepared. Along the way, when I was a student, I felt like I was getting a really good, quality education. I did really well in school. Then I found out I was actually not prepared for college. Unfortunately, I don’t think a whole lot has changed since I was a student in public schools here, especially in low-income schools. And they actually comprise a significant part of District 13. It is an urban area, with high concentrations of poverty.
I was motivated after college to become a teacher. So I experienced District 13 public schools as a student, and I ended up teaching in Houston, where I learned more about our public schools and had the experience as an educator. I think from that experience and doing some policy and advocacy work at the national level, I just really feel like our students deserve more. I don’t think the State Board of Education tends to be highly sought after, and I think conversations on the state board deserve someone who has a deep passion for the children and the public schools of Texas. I think I’m going to be that voice.
Trib+Edu: What is your experience in education?
Beltran: I did Teach for America. I taught bilingual kindergarten and bilingual fourth grade. After graduate school, I worked in California for a year for a private foundation that was doing investments in early childhood education in the state. Later, I was working in D.C. for five years lobbying for federal education policy and advocacy.
Trib+Edu: What are your perceptions of the rest of the board?
Beltran: I’m going into this understanding I’m one of five Democrats on a 15-member board. I understand those dynamics. But I’m honestly looking forward to getting to know my colleagues. Right now, I don’t feel like I know them very well. I want to understand what they care about and figure out how we can work together.
There will obviously be disagreements, but I think I will be a productive member of the board and work through any differences we might have. At the end of the day, I think we are all there for the same reason, to help improve our public schools and represent and serve the children and families of Texas.
Trib+Edu: Are there any specific issues you hope to tackle on the board?
Beltran: Within the responsibilities of the state board, my top priority is to work to ensure there is rigorous instruction, meaning that we have high-quality standards, high-quality curriculum, books that are scientifically and historically accurate, so that our students are prepared to be successful.
The other thing I’m really excited to work on is ensuring that every student has an effective teacher. That means making sure certification requirements, along with training and professional development are provided to all teachers. The last thing is ensuring that kids have access to high-quality schools no matter where they live.
Trib+Edu: College readiness is a big issue for you. What areas need improvement?
Beltran: That is tied to rigorous coursework. One of the things I want to keep an eye toward is in what is happening with the implementation of HB 5, now that algebra II is no longer a graduation requirement. Courses will look different on campuses.
We need to make sure students have access to counselors to inform them on choosing the right endorsement. We need to make sure that our teachers are well trained and have the professional development to provide effective instruction. The research shows pretty clearly that the biggest in-school factor of student outcome is the teacher. We can do a lot more for teachers and that will have a huge impact on student outcome and college readiness.
Trib+Edu: Are there any recent issues the board has dealt with you wished you had a say in?
Beltran: I think the current conversation and review of social studies textbooks and science textbooks is really intriguing. I’ve read about some of the social studies textbooks that talk about segregation, and how during the time of segregation black students only sometimes had access to lower-quality schools. You have science textbooks that are playing down in the effects of climate change. Those kinds of things concern me.
The obvious consequence is that students aren’t learning factual science and history. But the larger repercussion of that is that the textbooks that Texas ends up adopting oftentimes are adopted by other states because publishers cater toward the needs of Texas because it is such a large state. That is certainly a conversation I wish I could be a part of and will probably be engaged in those conversations once I get to work next year.