Name: Tony Vargas
Profession: Nebraska State Senator, District 7;
Director of Marketing and Communications for Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance (an Environmental Advocacy Nonprofit)
Hobbies: Spending time with his wife, Lauren, watching movies, playing basketball, reading policy, and eating out at the great restaurants in District 7
Hometown: New York City (Flushing, Queens)
Current City: Omaha, Nebraska
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF!
I was born in Flushing, Queens and grew up in New York City, which is where I met my wife, Lauren. We moved from New York to Nebraska so Lauren could pursue a degree in law. I love Omaha! It’s a medium-sized city and we live within walking distance to the downtown area. I live and work in the largest Latino-serving district in Nebraska; 50% of my community is made up of people of color, and it’s 48% Latino. I ran for my state senate seat because I wanted to represent the most diverse district in the state. It’s a very welcoming community, made up of older immigrants from Poland, Italy, and the Czech Republic, and newer immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Bhutan, South Sudan, and many other countries.
TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT LB427.
LB427 requires every public school district in the state of Nebraska to have an explicit policy that supports pregnant and teenage parents. That policy is created and drafted by local school boards, and must be implemented by the time the 2018 school year begins.
There are four specific things it mandates:
1. Accommodation for Coursework – We learned that a teenage mother who asked for a tutor was denied, while an injured athlete was provided a tutor. Pregnant and teenage parents must be granted accommodations that are in line with those made for any other student that is missing school for medical reasons.
2. Accommodation for Absences – In Douglas County, truancy is a problem that we are working to improve. We learned that many of the individuals who were absent for pregnancy or parenting-related reasons were treated and penalized in the same way as students who were purposefully absent from school. That’s just not right – no one should have to choose between being a parent and completing their education.
3. Teenage mothers must be provided a private, hygienic space to breastfeed or express/pump and store breastmilk. This applies to all schools – public, private, and parochial settings.
4. All school districts must explicitly provide students with information on childcare programs in their area. For example, Step Up to Quality is an early childcare rating system for providers – we want to make sure students know that this program exists so that they can locate high quality child care providers in the area to use while they continue to attend classes. Schools should also provide information on tax credits that are available for low income students to use for childcare and connect them with childcare providers in the area.
Anything above and beyond these requirements would be locally controlled.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO INTRODUCE LB427?
I’m a former teacher and care deeply about educational achievement for students from all backgrounds. The data surrounding this issue (student parents, specifically young moms, and the rate at which they were leaving school because they had difficulties finishing school as a new parent) made a clear case for the need to introduce and pass legislation. We worked hand-in-hand with ACLU Nebraska, who had placed an open records request with every public school district in Nebraska. What they found was that there were stark inconsistencies across the state in the policies and accommodations made for pregnant and parenting students – some schools had their own childcare facilities, some didn’t; some provided safe, hygienic spaces for lactation along with schedules for usage so that it was completely accessible, and some treated lactation as taboo and made nothing available. We so clearly needed a state statute to make sure that these students are afforded the same liberties, protections, and accommodations as their peers.
WHY DO YOU THINK THIS BILL IS SO IMPORTANT?
As law makers, we should be doing everything we can to remove barriers that exist for people to excel academically and professionally. Everyone should be given an equal opportunity to graduate high school and go on to fulfill their full potential. If we really and truly believe in all of our kids, we need to do everything we can to support them – all of them.
It was a fight at every stage to get this legislation passed. Some of my colleagues wanted this policy to be optional. But we worked very hard to build a coalition of senators that were behind it, made up of senators from both sides of the political aisle, who represent both urban and rural districts.
When it passed, my office got so much positive feedback from current and former student parents. They said, ‘If this had been around when I was pregnant, I could have graduated. I would have started my career earlier, and been able to provide for my family sooner. I wouldn’t have gone through so much stress and struggle.’
I’m so proud that it was my first piece of legislation passed.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE ITS IMPACT WILL BE? HOW WILL YOU MEASURE IT?
The Nebraska Department of Education felt so strongly that LB427 was something they should implement that they were proactive this summer in creating a model policy that meets the criteria for the bill that local school districts can follow. Every school district in the state will have the ability to adopt and modify it to suit their local needs. I will continue to work with the Department and Nebraska schools to measure outcomes, primarily assessing the number of pregnant and parenting students and their graduation rates.
HOW WOULD YOU ENCOURAGE OTHER INDIVIDUALS, ORGANIZATIONS, OR ELECTED OFFICIALS TO SIMILARLY ADVOCATE FOR PREGNANT AND NEW PARENTS?
Legislation plays a huge role in change, and elected officials at all levels have a say over things that impact expecting and new parents. Knowing who makes decisions on your behalf is half the battle – at the state level, the city level, and especially on your local school boards. You have the power to elect, re-elect, and hold your elected officials accountable!
So, don’t be afraid to contact these people and get to know them, make sure they understand your life and your story. Call your representatives because we’re always listening. Email your representatives because we’re always reading your messages. Sit down and talk with your elected officials so there isn’t any disconnect. We are often afraid to tell people what we are going through, but we need to have those conversations. We really needed testimonials to move our legislation out of committee. This was how we changed the hearts and minds of my colleagues.
Follow Senator Vargas on Twitter @tonyvargas and Instagram @tonyvargasne
Special thanks to Senator Vargas for this interview and for all of his hard work and leadership on behalf of pregnant women and parents everywhere.