“I said not my city, not my son, not my children, not these children.” These are the words of Bridgeport, Connecticut parent Jessica Martinez, the lead plaintiff in Martinez v. Malloy, a federal lawsuit currently awaiting trial that challenges Connecticut’s cap on school choice seats.
She spoke a few weeks ago during the 113th Annual Connecticut State Missionary Baptist Convention panel on state education funding. She had a lot to say (if you’re interested here’s a recording of the full panel), but one of the most interesting parts of the discussion was her recounting how she became an activist.
I’ve known Jessica awhile from my work covering Bridgeport’s turbulent education politics. In many ways, the city is a microcosm of the debate on reform and choice, and Jessica has been through it all—in addition to the being the lead plaintiff of a lawsuit against the state, Jessica’s currently on the city’s Democratic Town Committee and recently announced she’ll be running for school board. She’s a fixture of the community. That’s why it came as a surprise to hear that, not too long ago, she avoided politics.
According to Jessica, her journey started after she lost her job. That’s how she ended up connecting with other parents, who encouraged her to visit her son’s classroom.
“I did not realize how difficult it was for my son’s teacher to teach a class of 27,” said Jessica. “I did not realize you had kids of all levels of education in one classroom, and my son was lacking attention and education.”
What she saw in her son’s classroom prompted her into action. She decided her new mission was to activate, engage and educate parents in her community.
“It is up to us to link arms with our leaders,” said Jessica during the panel. “As a Bridgeport parent, I feel as though, you can’t tell me about our children, and you can’t tell me about me, and you can’t tell me about my neighbors, but I can tell you about them.”
Jessica’s statement gets right to the heart of why parents like her are important in the debate on education.
When Jessica says “our children are in limbo” referring to the way we fund schools of choice, there is urgency because she’s talking about her son and her community. She’s talking about what she had to do get her son out of a school that wasn’t meeting his needs. Ultimately, she was able to get her son into a better school through a controlled transfer, but it wasn’t easy.
During the panel, she spoke about the “stigma” of being a parent—the pervasive idea that parents, particularly urban parents, don’t care. “The fact of the matter is that in Bridgeport at least, there are so many children and yet there aren’t that many but there aren’t so many parents advocating. Why? Because they’re single parents or they’re working three jobs.”
She says she isn’t mad at the system though. Instead her philosophy is to “be the change.”
“We have to do better for each other,” said Jessica. “We have to help our neighbor out, but we also have to be at the table with the board of education, with Hartford, with our state senators, with our reps. They need to understand what we want. What we need.”