By Perdita Henry
Healthy Futures of Texas is always working toward a future where people have access to the information and healthcare needed to help them lead their best lives. Our mission continues to focus on science-based education and advocacy efforts that empower young people, women, and families to make the best decisions for their futures, but we can’t do it alone. Allies from across the state who understand the role of education as empowerment in the lives of Texans go to work everyday to ensure that their communities have what they need to thrive.
Ahead of this year’s Accessing Our Future event—live streaming Wednesday, October 21, on YouTube, register and donate here—we wanted to give everyone more insight on the incredible work of this year’s awardees. These outstanding leaders work tirelessly to ensure that the communities they serve have the knowledge necessary to make the best decisions for their futures. Through their work, they remind us how service to our communities benefits us all.
Each year, the Estrella Award is given to a true star who makes a positive difference for the health and well-being of young people in our community. This year’s awardee is no exception. Meet Marisa B. Perez-Diaz (D), District 3 Texas State Board of Education member.
You are the youngest Latina, nationally, to be elected to a State Board of Education (SBOE). Why did you want to be on the Texas SBOE?
I began my career working for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services as a caseworker when I made the decision to run for office. I was in and out of classrooms all the time advocating on behalf of the children on my caseload, so many times I experienced difficulty in communication and understanding between the child welfare system and the education system; two systems which should work directly with one another. The youth I cared for were typically the ones who experienced the most severe re-traumatization by schooling as we know it, in both direct and indirect ways (i.e. severe disciplinary approaches, a lack of understanding of child trauma and how to support children through trauma, prioritization of testing and grades over social and emotional well-being, etc.).
After several years of witnessing the siloed approach to supporting our youth through their education and a very frustrating interaction at a school campus, I decided that my advocacy for youth could no longer be limited to child abuse and neglect. Education advocacy is critical. I wanted to position myself to support our youth by bridging the gap between our schools and the CPS system. Creating inclusive, thoughtful, and equitable education policy that provides opportunities for ALL our kids continues to be important to me.
All children, no matter their life experiences, deserve access to an education that engages them, ensures they are listened to, supports their learning and growth with the most accurate and research-sound information, and prepares them for a bright future filled with opportunity.
What role does the SBOE play in Texas student education?
One of the most critical. Every single public school in the state of Texas must teach the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), the standards that are expected to be met by every student at each grade level beginning in kindergarten. The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is responsible for convening committees that review and make recommendations regarding what is developmentally appropriate, factually accurate and necessary for our youth to become well-informed and productive global citizens.
We then take the committees work and recommendations and use it to approve the final set of standards in core content areas (English Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies), career and technical education courses, fine arts and other elective courses for school credit. The weight of our decisions has wide-ranging implications for how prepared our young adults are as they leave the K-12 system, and enter post-secondary education, the military, or workforce.
Additionally, we oversee the adoption of instructional materials aligned to those TEKS, so that our educators have material they can refer to when it’s time to teach the content. We also invest in the Permanent School Fund, the nation's largest education endowment, which supplements education funding the Texas Legislature is responsible for. We oversee a number of other policy decision-making; however, the standards, the instructional materials, and the Permanent School Fund are the three most critical functions of the board.
What do you wish more people understood about the SBOE?
Above everything, I wish more Texans understood that the SBOE has great influence in what our students are learning and how prepared they will be when they leave Texas schools for the real world. It is critical that our young people have representatives making education policy decisions that will provide them the tools they need to leave home as well-informed, contributing members of our cities and state.
The SBOE recently worked on revising and updating sexual health guidelines. As a board member, why is it important that students receive sexual health education and information about healthy relationships?
We are social beings. Interactions with one another take many forms, from simply passing one another on a sidewalk, to engaging in a committed relationship that involves sexual intimacy. Our young people are not immune to these interactions, and so they must learn how to navigate them in safe ways that will prepare them to protect their bodies, as well as respect the bodies of others. As a board member, I have a particular responsibility to keep ALL Texas children in mind. So, I go beyond my role as a board member and bring in my insights as a former caseworker.
The reality is that thousands and thousands of children across our state have been exposed to sex in one way or another (i.e. television, social media, family members, peers, stranger aggressors, etc.). I also reflect on the fact that, for the majority of our youth, the SINGLE relatable constant is their attendance in school. I’m a voice for ALL of our children in public K-12 schools, and with the two previous points in mind, I see it as the responsibility of an institution that serves as a constant that touches most every child, no matter their life experiences or education, to provide them with the most medically-accurate information they need to safely navigate such an important topic as sexual health, which must include the intersection of sexual health and healthy relationships.