Everybody knows that the California education system is broken. Marred by a decline in educational standards, a misuse of public funds and racial discrimination, most parents would have surrendered. One parent in Riverside County decided to fight back.
Christina Laster, a mother of four, is anything but apathetic. She has been involved in child advocacy for most of her life and is a big believer in making things more equitable. Growing up in a border town, she had many friends who were disadvantaged and it made her want to help others. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of San Diego’s Institute of Peace and Justice and an MBA from the Keller School of Management, Christina went to work in public education.
It was as a teacher and a parent that Christina first noticed that something was wrong. In her school, she witnessed some of her colleagues not being given access to certain levels of employment. Although many met the requirements of their union and boasted a great deal of experience, she suspected that language and race played a role in hindering her colleagues’ advancement. In addition to this, Christina became upset with how the district allocated resources and with how some teachers would treat their students, including her own son and grandson.
After a teacher handed down an excessive and harsh punishment to her son, Christina decided she had enough. Speaking with the instructor, principal and superintendent, she became frustrated with them when nothing was done. Christina chose to file a report to the Office of Civil Rights and inform her local NAACP. This experience led the South Riverside County NAACP to realize that they needed to do more to fill the gap in the community.
Since then, Christina has continued to seek ways to be a solution and help people pursue higher goals so that they can have equity in life. As the Education Chair for the South Riverside County NAACP, she continues to advocate for children. She does this by informing parents about their educational options and coming alongside them to assist them as she can.
Last year, Christina became involved with the Parent Union, following a conversation with California Policy Center President Will Swaim. The Parent Union, which was formed in 2016 by Santa Ana School Board member Ceci Iglesias, is group of parents and education advocates that fight to ensure that all students receive an outstanding public education regardless of their zip code. After hearing about their vision, she decided to join the movement and fight for greater school choice. Christina says that “parents need to have the ability to know they have options and a right to choose what is best for their child.” She knows this from her own personal experience, having fought to give her own children a cross-cultural education so that they could be bilingual like herself.
Now President of the Inland Empire Parent Union, Christina has come to manage a rather large grassroots movement seeking to improve the local school system. Yet, her goals remain unchanged both as a leader in her NAACP and Parent Union chapter – she continues to fight for equity. With a common vision for school choice, the Parent Union has been able to secure an endorsement from the NAACP. In a letter of support from NAACP Branch #1034, Christina states “I believe that our common goal is to decrease injustices within the education system and allow for students to thrive. I support parents knowing how to use their rights and the community supporting the parents by using a collective voice to achieve excellence and high standards in education.”
When I spoke with Christina last week as she was planning the first annual Inland Empire Parent Union School Choice Fair, I encountered a woman full of energy and passion. She was driven and spoke at length about the many sponsors and partnerships she had established to make sure the event would be a success for both parents and children. But Christina was most proud of the Planet Youth Program, which is going to encourage parents to have their children apply for paid internships and provide them with student funding for transportation like bus passes. “This is an opportunity,” she said, “because parents will be able to give their child a competitive edge.”
Ceci Iglesias, the Director of Education and Community Relations and founder of the Parent Union, has also been impressed with Christina’s work. She said, “In the last forty-five days, Christina has stepped up in a big way. She not only became President of the Inland Empire Parent Union and planned this event, but she’s already thinking about how we can do more and expand beyond even Riverside.” When I asked Christina about this, she confirmed that she had been contacted by some people in Vista County who are eager to start their own Parent Union chapter.
Despite the many challenges students face in the Inland Empire, Christina remains optimistic about the future. According to Christina, “Parents want information and want to change things. By sharing information with one person, they can share it with other people they know.” There is a lot of power in gaining knowledge and developing relationships with others.
As the Parent Union movement grows, leaders like Christina play an invaluable role in inspiring others to stop sitting on the sidelines. More and more parents are recognizing that school choice empowers them to be more involved in their children’s education. This, in turn, builds stronger relationships not just between parents and teachers but between parents and their own children as well.
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Koppany Jordan serves as the Assistant to the President of California Policy Center.