Commentary: Jaime Escalante, R.I.P.

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As you likely have seen or heard in the news, Jaime Escalante, the legendary Los Angeles math teacher who inspired the 1982 film Stand and Deliver, passed away last week at age 79. Amid the myriad of obsequies recounting his success in one of the worst school districts in America is a cautionary tale. Escalante challenged and threatened the status quo maintained by Los Angeles’ public school board and, in doing so, provided a blueprint for success in public schools.

However, by actually promoting progress, Escalante was undermining the power of the teachers’ union and, thus, became an enemy. Eventually, fed up with the opposition he faced from resentful career bureaucrats and unqualified school board lackeys, Escalante, along with some of his colleagues at Garfield High, resigned. Not long afterwards, Garfield High’s progress plummeted back to abysmal standards.

Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute produced an excellent piece in last week’s Wall Street Journal recounting Escalante’s remarkable tale, as well as the subtext of the clash between progressive, innovative education and the stagnant power-politics of the status quo. Not content to merely recap Escalante’s considerable accomplishments, Coulson acknowledges that, “The best tribute America can offer Jaime Escalante is to understand why our education system destroyed rather than amplified his success—and then fix it.”

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