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San Antonio mayor says education is key for Latinos

4:21 PM, Oct 14, 2012   |    comments
San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro sees education as the best path to advancement for Latinos. (Photo: Evan Eile, USA TODAY)
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by Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
SAN ANTONIO - To Julian Castro, the issue most vital to Latinos is not immigration or jobs.

It's their access to a decent education.

Education is one of the top issues that could help the country's more than 50 million Latinos thrive and succeed - and help nudge them to the polls in November, Castro said in a recent interview with USA TODAY. Castro, the 38-year-old mayor of San Antonio, shot to semi-stardom last month after giving the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, becoming the first Hispanic ever to do so.

He'll be watching the November tallies closely, not only to see if President Obama, a close ally, gets re-elected but also because an initiative he's championed for San Antonio will be sharing the presidential ballot. That proposal asks voters to approve a 1/8th-cent sales tax hike to finance full-day pre-kindergarten classes for under-served 4-year-olds.

Castro has already spoken on behalf of the Obama campaign at rallies in North Carolina and Virginia. Visits to Nevada, Colorado and Florida - swing states with large Latino populations - are likely to follow. His message will be consistent: creating opportunities so that Latinos and all groups have a fair shot at a good education.

"Ensuring more students have the opportunity to go to college or university or technical training - those are the things I'm most passionate about," Castro said.

Castro's focus on education was forged from personal experience. Born in San Antonio, Castro was raised by a single mother who's a well-known political activist and a grandmother who cleaned homes and babysat other kids to help support the family. His identical twin brother, Joaquin, is a state representative and considered a front-runner for a U.S. House seat this fall.

Julian Castro didn't enjoy being dragged to political rallies by his mother, Rosie, as a young boy and didn't envision following his mother into politics, he said. But by the time they reached college, the matronly influence of civic involvement tugged at both brothers, Julian Castro said. The brothers attended Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio together, both graduated from Stanford University and went on together to Harvard Law School.

In 2001, at age 26, Julian Castro became the youngest elected city councilman at the time in San Antonio history. He was elected mayor eight years later. The boys from San Antonio's west side were getting noticed.

"These two brothers are not only identical twins. They're identical in ability," said Gilberto Hinojosa, head of the Texas Democratic Party. "They're identical in their ability to articulate positions and policies, identical in the courage of their convictions. Both are potential statewide elected officials and ultimately national leaders."

Julian Castro said he noticed a disparity in education as he went from public school in San Antonio to Stanford and beyond. His test scores, initially below the median score level, improved as he was exposed to better education, he said.

"Once I had the opportunity to actually swim in those waters, and soak it up, I was able to compete just like anybody else," Julian Castro said.

Nationally, only about 13% of Hispanic 25- to 29-year-olds complete at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 39% for whites in the same age group and 53% for Asians, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

In Texas, lawmakers have historically under-invested in public education in poorer neighborhoods, said Juan Flores, executive director of the San Antonio-based La Fe Policy Research and Education Center. The sales tax initiative aims at the heart of the problem: preparing pre-K students to do better in kindergarten and, as a result, throughout their public school careers, he said.

Julian Castro has won the backing of community activists both for his roots in the city and his understanding that improved education will better the city, Flores said. "He's demonstrated efforts to really try to raise the standard of living for the community," he said.

Delivering the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention has been a pinnacle of his career, Julian Castro said. The most memorable moment of that night came backstage with this brother, minutes before being introduced, he said. With excitement and anxiety mounting, Julian Castro snapped a photo of him and Joaquin with his iPhone and posted it to his Facebook page.

The speech led to a flurry of national media interviews, more speeches and talk of higher office for the brothers. For now, Julian Castro said he's focused on San Antonio, the upcoming initiative and getting more under-privileged kids into better classrooms.

"What we need to work on the most is creating a very well-educated, highly-skilled workforce for the future," he said. "Brain power is the new currency of success in the 21st century global economy."

USA TODAY

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