At a time when her party is fighting battles around school choice and public school funding, Rep. Geraldine “Gerae” Peten, D-Goodyear, the newest addition to the state House, may be just the ally Democrats needed.
Peten, appointed to replace former Rep. Jesus Rubalcava who resigned, holds a doctorate in education from Northern Arizona University, plus two master’s degrees in other areas. And she has a history in administrative roles. Those experiences have run the gamut of institutions, including as principal of Pinon Elementary School on the Navajo Nation and principal of Pinnacle Education, Inc., a charter school in Tempe, and they’ve shaped her perspective on a state she worries may be going back in time in more ways than one. Peten has worked as an education consultant for a firm based in Goodyear since 2003.
Obviously, education is a priority for you heading into the Legislature.
This state seems to fund charter schools more liberally than they do public schools. I feel that the funding is totally inadequate. We need to invest in education from kindergarten all the way through post-secondary. Just getting through high school isn’t enough. They also need either vocational, technical or college training, so they can get marketable jobs that will sustain a high quality of life and not be stuffed in that school-to-prison pipeline. That’s what I think happens. A personal example: When we moved here, my eldest son was in 11th grade, and he had six African-American friends who were in school with him at that time. He was the only one who graduated. The disproportionate number of African American boys and Hispanic boys who are suspended, expelled, whatever – all kinds of deterrents knock them out of school and into the prisons. It’s tragic.
Why do you think that is?
It’s called racism. People don’t like to say it, but it’s racism. Racial profiling – I don’t know how many times you’re stopped by the police a year. My son is stopped over 20 times just because he’s driving while black. It’s racism. We just need to admit it. You can’t work on a problem if you don’t admit that you have it.
How do you fight back in that case?
As you can see from my resume, my thing is to be well prepared, to be over-prepared in order to even get my foot in the door. That has worked for the most part. You just have to do the best you can with what you have and just go forward. When I first moved here as a single mom with two boys, practically every job I got I could’ve filed an EOC complaint. But when you are the head of your household and you have children, you have to choose your battles. Do you go to court and fight it, or do you find another job so you can support your children?
You have to survive. Honestly, when the civil rights law was passed in 1964, I was very gullible and naive and optimistic, I suppose. I thought that would pave the way, and everything would be fair and equitable. But it wasn’t. I think it lulled a lot of us into some sort of state of complacency.
Did what happened in Charlottesville surprise you?
No… I almost feel like we’ve gone back 40 years. I felt at one point that we had made tremendous gains. We were talking about equity and diversity and honoring diversity. Now, that’s been pushed to the side.
What did you think of our president’s response?
I think he has a better speechwriter now… It wasn’t his authentic thoughts or beliefs. He shadowed what’s already been said. He’s not a peacemaker. His rhetoric usually incites anger. Like when he said there were good people on both sides. You’re telling me that white supremacy – there’s good in that?
When my youngest son started kindergarten, he had made a new friend. Six weeks into the year, he comes home distraught. He hated the school. He was never going back, and he was crying. I asked him what happened, and he said his newest best friend had told him that day, “I can’t play with you anymore because you’re a n*****.” His friend’s mom had come to pick him up and saw that their son’s best friend was an African-American kid. If you can imagine, those parents took that kid home that evening and taught him how to be racist. It just needs to stop. If you’re so embroiled in so much hatred, how can you make positive gains in your life?
What do you think should be done with Confederate monuments?
Those monuments were put up during the time of Jim Crow. They wanted to intimidate and keep African-Americans in their place with the threat of white supremacy. Why would you display hatred? They were fighting for slavery, so unless you are supporting the values of slavery and what it stood for, why should they be on public display? They should be in a museum, but they don’t need to be on public display.
So has the governor’s response not been satisfactory?
He hasn’t come right out and ordered them down, has he? Then, no. That’s what he needs to say. He’s toeing the line. That doesn’t help the climate in this country. It adds more fuel to the fire.
Your party is numerically on the losing side, except in rare instances involving a swing vote from across the aisle. Does that impact your outlook for what you can accomplish?
I hope we can work across the aisle and in a bipartisan manner. Some things are just humane or morally correct. We should all want children to have the best education possible. We should all want them to have a high-quality teacher, and we’re willing to pay them. It’s almost like we’re going back to apartheid schools. We’re becoming more segregated than we were, and that’s just not good for kids. It would be nice if we could get rid of the label. We’re all people, and we’re all here to improve the quality of life of all citizens. Most kids don’t think of themselves as political. Why should we have these political issues impact their lives?