Saturday evening, I met with JoCasta Zamarripa, a candidate for the 8th Assembly District on the south-side. She was accompanied by two staff members, both of which sat in on the interview since they happened to be in the area.
As first impressions go, JoCasta had a gentle demeanor, a delicate voice and showed reluctance to criticize her primary opponents. Although she has a soft disposition and was a pleasure to interview, nobody can doubt her passion for the community. That being said, let's talk about issues.
JoCasta is an outreach coordinator for Planned Parenthood and was a full-time staffer at Equality Wisconsin, an organization that "seeks to improve the quality of life" for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Given her involvement in both organizations, I questioned her about abortion and gay marriage. I shared with her recent polling done by Univision and the Associated Press showing that the Hispanic community as a whole opposed abortion and gay marriage.
Seemingly uncomfortable with the question, JoCasta explained that she's a very progressive woman who is proud of her work history. She told me that in the 4,500 doors she knocked on since Memorial Day, not one person raised concerns about abortion or gay marriage. But how many of them know that a gay and lesbian magazine touted her leadership in opposing Wisconsin's constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage? Ultimately, Zamarripa declined to answer questions about abortion and gay marriage saying it was better to let the voters define the issues.
JoCasta's website says she wants to hold schools accountable for the public money they receive. When asked to elaborate, she stated that she would not lift or remove caps on voucher schools unless she sees more transparency, accreditation, standardized testing, and bilingual education. She emphasized the concern that some Latino children might be left behind unless bilingual programs are offered at voucher schools. She asked if I had agreed. Of course, I was happy to give my opinion.
I told her that St. Anthony's in Milwaukee, which is the largest Catholic elementary school in the nation, has an effective English immersion program. This means that in order to accelerate English fluency, they do not speak Spanish in the classrooms, lunchrooms, or in the hallways. The end result is they score above the national average in both reading and mathematics. I explained that this is an exceptional achievement considering the fact that 98% of the kids that attend St. Anthony's are Latino and many of which are not fluent in English.
But English Immersion doesn't always produce the results seen at St. Anthony's, JoCasta retorted. That maybe true, but forcing a bilingual program on a school like St. Anthony's would make a mess of their school forcing them to replace 10-15% of their faculty with teachers who are state certified in bilingual education - teachers that even MPS can't find. According to St. Anthony's principal Ramon Cruz, a bilingual program would put off English fluency for years. And it gets worse, choice schools would need to carefully sort out kids according to English fluency and classify them by language, grade, and age group. The list goes on.
I asked JoCasta that if St. Anthony's is doing well, then why tinker with it? JoCasta made clear that she would never oppose voucher schools that were excelling, but she expressed concerns about fraud and lack of certifications at such schools.
What about JoCasta's concerns about accreditation, standardized testing, and transparency? We contacted Claire Brefka, the Assistant Principal of St. Anthony's School in Milwaukee. She told us that St. Anthony's was in full compliance with DPI, their students participate in standardized testing such as Wisconsins Knowledge and Concepts Exam and the IOWA test of basic skills, and their finances are audited by an independent firm every year.
The point is that all choice schools must be accredited by at least four state-sanctioned accrediting bodies according to state law. And they must also provide their students with the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, which is a standardized test that includes reading, math, writing, science, social studies, and language arts.
Along with Angel Sanchez, JoCasta Zamarripa is considered a front-runner in the race for the 8th Assembly District. Two weeks ago, we ran an editorial recognizing that Angel Sanchez has the most experience in the race for the 8th district. We also suggested that his experience would serve him, and if elected, would help him hit the ground running.
JoCasta took exception to our view saying that Sanchez lost a reelection bid for the 12th District aldermanic seat, which she said, "spoke volumes". Of course, there could be several reasons to lose a reelection bid anywhere from lack of campaign funds to poor voter turnout.
Make no doubt about it, campaigning is sometimes more than just a candidate's position on the issues. It's how they project themselves, who they stand with, and how they spread their message.