Meet Our Candidates: Lela Alston for Phoenix Union High School District Governing Board

The Arizona general election will be held on November 8, 2016. Reproductive health care access has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who have shown strong commitment to reproductive justice. To acquaint you with our endorsed candidates, we are running a series called “Meet Our Candidates.” In order to vote in the election, you must have been registered to vote by October 10. Make your voice heard in 2016!

[P]hoenix Union High School District governing board candidate Lela Alston is back and at it again. A longtime school teacher and current member of the House of Representatives, Ms. Alston is running for reelection to the governing board of the Phoenix Union High School District. Ms. Alston’s impressive track record of public service reflects her commitment to Arizona’s children and families, for whom she is striving to build a better future. As a school board member, Ms. Alston will continue to advocate for comprehensive sexuality education programs, fight for adequate funding, and celebrate inclusivity and diversity.

“Our students will be healthier in their current lives and in their future lives if they have full knowledge of important subjects such as contraception and HIV/AIDS.”

Ms. Alston participated in our “Meet Our Candidates” series in 2012 and 2014 as a candidate for the House of Representatives, and on October 10, 2016, she graciously agreed to a telephone interview in which she discussed her candidacy for PUHSD school board.

Tell us a little about your background and why it’s important to you to be involved with education in your community.

I am a retired teacher from PUHSD, and I was asked to run by my colleagues when they felt the board was not supportive of students, faculty, and other employees. I have long been involved in the political world, and I have always had education, children, and families at the top of my agenda. I served in the state Senate from 1977 to 1995, and in 1994 I ran for State School Superintendent and lost to Lisa Graham Keegan. After that, I went back to teaching school full time. I retired 10 years ago, and eight years ago there was an opening on the school board for which I was asked to run. I am now running for my third term on the school board and I have in the meantime gone back to serving my legislative district in the state House. This year I will be starting my seventh year in the House, so I will be term-limited from the House after this next two years.

As a teacher I taught home-economics, and my master’s is in child development and human relations, so the issues of education, family, and children just kind of naturally fit with the issues I have championed all my adult life.

What is it like to balance your work in the House with your work on the school board? How do they intersect?

Often what we do at the Legislature directly affects what funds are available to school districts and school boards. So we’re always fighting the lack of funding. And in Phoenix Union’s case, we fight not only for ourselves (we are a high school district only), but also for our partner districts. We have 13 partner districts — or what used to be called feeder districts — that we are very concerned about as well.

Right now one of the big issues is that PUHSD, Tucson Unified School District, and many smaller Phoenix Union partner districts are threatened with the loss of funds for our desegregation money. [This money provides] over $50 million to Phoenix Union, and it has helped build our magnet schools. It’s also what took us from being under a court order from the U.S. Department of Justice to being in an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. Many of the current legislators, and particularly the Arizona Tax Research Association, are really hoping to take that money away. If that were to happen, then Phoenix Union would have to close at least one comprehensive high school and all of our small specialty schools, where in many ways we’re getting our highest results for achievement and graduation rates. It would also take away the magnet programs that have been so successful.

The court has said — it was right in the desegregation order — that if that money is ever diminished, then we’ll be right back under the court order, rather than the agreement. So if that money goes away, then all our programming will be destroyed and we’ll be back at square zero as far as building positive programs for our children.

What is sexuality education like in your school district, and what improvements would you like to see in how it’s addressed?

We are very progressive and inclusive in educating our students for all possible aspects of adulthood and their current lives. We want to be as inclusive as possible. We are limited by state law that says, [if our district offers sexuality education programs], we must stress abstinence, and that’s a problem. However, we try to be as open as we possibly can and also stay within the state law. We’re not trying to skirt the state law, but we do not appreciate it, and we feel that our students will be healthier in their current lives and in their future lives if they have full knowledge of important subjects such as contraception and HIV/AIDS.

As you can see in the [Inclusivity Resolution our district adopted in October 2015], PUHSD welcomes every child, regardless of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, developmental stage, physical characteristics, body types, races, ethnicity, languages, country of origin, religious beliefs, faith community, family structures, abilities, disabilities, experience, sexual experience, history of victimization, pregnancy, abortion, parenting, and so forth. We want to honor and respect all of our kids and celebrate our diversity. We think that whether a child is questioning their own sexuality or not, they need to be able to understand that others might be.

According to current Arizona law (ARS 15-176), no school district that includes HIV/AIDS education in their curricula may use instruction that “promotes a homosexual life-style,” “portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style,” or “suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.” Why do you think it’s so important for sex education in Arizona to be inclusive of all students?

First of all, to keep our children as safe and well as possible. And past that, to make sure all our students understand their peers, and perhaps others in their lives. We want them to celebrate diversity and not be frightened or put off or become the bullies — one thing that we don’t tolerate. We want our kids to really celebrate not only themselves, but also the differences they experience now and in the future.

In the most recent legislative session, the state Senate refused to hear SB 1020, which would have made sex education opt-out rather than opt-in. Can you explain why this seemingly small change would have made such a big difference?

It may sound minor but it is a really big change. Right now, for students to receive sex education, their parents have to sign that they’re allowed to; they have to take that positive step. And some parents — and I’m not talking about the ones that don’t want their children to have school sex ed, because that’s a legitimate thing, and if a family wants to deal with that themselves, we honor that — but, so many parents just don’t take the initiative to opt in. Some would like for their children to get information [about sexuality] at school, but for whatever reason do not take that positive step to do it. Parents who would opt out because they don’t want the schools to teach their children those issues are often much more aware. I don’t think we’d be stepping on any toes for families that don’t want their children to have sex education in a public school situation.

Our families, particularly in Phoenix Union and in many of [our] partner districts, are just pushed to the max of everything. They’re hard working. They may have two to three jobs. Economic times are not good, so money’s always an issue. And they’re fighting to do what’s best for their kids and it’s a big struggle. We want to support our kids and their families to make sure that they are healthy, happy, and highly performing.

What do you think about the connection between teenage pregnancy and high-school dropout rates?

It’s huge. It’s absolutely huge. Because once a child is pregnant — often unmarried, not always — then she has another life that she’s responsible for, and that becomes her No. 1 concern. I had the absolute honor, privilege, and joy of teaching evening school students at Metro Tech High School for several years, and I saw many teen moms coming back to school to complete their education. It was absolutely awesome. But many of our school districts don’t have the opportunity to provide an evening school for parents where kids can come back [after becoming pregnant]. It’s just a huge issue as far as dropout rate is concerned, and we are fighting that battle all the time by encouraging kids to be in school and stay in school.

Why was it important for you to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona?

I totally believe in the mission of Planned Parenthood, and Planned Parenthood’s involvement in our community and with our families. What you do with health care and pregnancy prevention is critically important for kids and families to be healthy. And that’s why I want to be your partner. I am proud and humbled and grateful for your endorsement.

You can follow Lela Alston on Twitter, or learn more about her campaign for House of Representatives in Legislative District 24 by checking out her campaign website.

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