HARLINGEN, Texas – A nonprofit set up by HEB’s Charles Butt to support public education in Texas is raising its profile in the Rio Grande Valley.

Raise Your Hand Texas-RGV held two candidate forums in Hidalgo County last week and hosts two in Cameron County this week. And on Sunday the group holds a pachanga in Harlingen to celebrate public education and civic engagement.

The pachanga takes place Feb. 22 at the Harlingen Sports Complex Pavilion from 12 to 4 p.m.

Charles Butt is chairman of the board and chief executive officer of HEB.

The new regional director for Raise Your Hand Texas in the Valley is Giovanni Ecobedo. He gave an exclusive interview to the Rio Grande Guardian following a recent candidate forum in McAllen.

Giovanni Escobedo

“Raise Your Hand Texas is a nonprofit organization that was funded by Charles Butt of HEB fame. He envisaged having an organization solely focused on education for Texas,” Escobedo explained.

“The organization was established in 2006 and we have grown throughout the years. We now have many regional offices and I am pleased to say we now have one in the Valley.”

Escobedo said having a regional presence helps tell the story of the work Raise Your Hand Texas does when the Legislature is in session in Austin.

“It is like taking our job on the road,” he said. “We want to improve public education for Texas. There are 5.4 million kids in Texas schools. We know that the future of Texas is based on our public schools. We are dedicated to working day in and day out for those kids.”

Raise Your Hand Texas is hosting 43 candidate forums in Texas during the current primary season. The two held in the upper Valley last week focused on the races for Texas House District 41 and Texas House District 36.

A candidate forum at the McAllen Convention Center allowed voters to see where incumbent state Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen, stands on the subject of public education. It also allowed voters to check out his Republican opponent, Dr. John Guerra, assuming that Rep. Guerra wins in the primary.

A candidate forum at the Mission Event Center allowed voters to check out the two Democratic candidates for Texas House District 36. The incumbent is state Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Mission, and the challenger is Abraham Padron of McAllen.

On Feb. 18, Raise Your Hands Texas-RGV hosts a candidate forum featuring the candidates for Texas Senate District 27. They are incumbent Eddie Lucio, Jr., and challengers Sara Stapleton Barrera and Ruben Cortez. The forum takes place at Travis Elementary School in Harlingen, starting at 6 p.m.

And on Feb. 20, Raise Your Hands Texas-RGV hosts a candidate forum featuring the candidates for Texas House Districts 37 and 38. The candidates running in the Democratic Party primary for House District 37 are incumbent Alex Dominguez and challenger Amber Medina. The candidates running in the Democratic Party primary for House District 38 are incumbent Eddie Lucio, III, and challenger Erin Gomez. The forum is being held at Brownsville Event Center, starting at 6 p.m.

Escobedo pointed out that Raise Your Hand Texas is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates. He said the group may have candidate forums during the general election in November.

“Our goal is to create a conversation for the community to talk to legislators or their future legislators. The community knows best what they want for their public schools and the challenges they are facing. It is great when they come to these forums and voice their opinions,” Escobedo said.

Asked where Raise Your Hand Texas gets the questions it poses to candidates, Escobedo said: “We have been talking to the community for a long time. We talk to parents, students, teachers, principals, superintendents to see what they want for their public schools. The questions come from those conversations.”

Escobedo pointed out that Raise Your Hand Texas sets a legislative agenda ahead of each legislative session. He said the 86th legislative session, which took place last year, was a good one for public education.”

Asked about this week’s candidate forums, Escobedo said: “We want the community to listen and make up their own minds. Hopefully they get out to vote.”

A yard sign handed out by Raise Your Hand Texas at a recent candidate forum in McAllen, Texas.

Biographical details

Escobedo joined the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation in fall 2019 as the regional advocacy director for the Rio Grande Valley. He has served more than 15 years as a community organizer and activist working with local, state, and national governments to address issues in education, equity, and immigration.

“His passion for connecting public policy and government with communities led him to work as a legislative staffer for the United States Congress and the Texas Senate. Recently, he served as a legislative assistant for State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa,” Raise Your Hand Texas’ website states.

In 2013, Escobedo received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gave him access to many of the opportunities he was denied in the past.

“Like many immigrants, Giovanni has worked hard to attain his education and is proud to have received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley,” the group’s website states.

Escobedo grew up in Dallas, where he had the opportunity to attend and graduate from Thomas Jefferson High School, a Texas Title I public school. “He is a proud first-generation college graduate and is thrilled to work alongside his Rio Grande Valley community to strengthen public education,” the group’s website states.

About Raise Your Hand Texas

On its website, Raise Your Hand Texas says the future of Texas, including its economy, communities, and citizenry, depends on how well the state prepares the students today.

“All students deserve a level playing field and equal access to a quality public education. We believe our public schools represent our greatest hope for educating and preparing all 5-plus million Texas students for the future,” the website states.

The website notes that Texas public schools are performing better than many people think.

“You wouldn’t know it by some narratives, but public schools are performing better than they have since student performance first started being tracked. Students are achieving higher results in reading and math than they have in decades. More students are graduating from high school,” the website states.

“Parent satisfaction with their local schools remains high, despite low perceptions of public education across the country. School districts across Texas are expanding choice and innovation in campuses and courses to ensure students leave high school college- and career-ready.”

In addition, Raise Your Hand Texas says, educators are “making admirable strides in the face of lackluster school funding, increased expectations and classroom mandates.” The group says there is a “constantly shifting accountability landscape,” and notes that the student population is growing, especially among those living in poverty or still learning English.

“The Texas identity has always been defined by lofty ideals and a never-ending pursuit of greater opportunity and prosperity for our citizens. While American schools have made incremental improvements in student achievement over the last few decades, other countries have experienced exponential gains,” Raise Your Hand Texas states.

“For too long, Texas and the United States have languished in the middle of the rankings. This has very real implications for our students’ individual and collective potential, our state’s business economy, and our global competitiveness.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Raise Your Hand Texas volunteers at a recent candidate forum at the McAllen Convention Center. The group’s regional director for the Rio Grande Valley, Giovanni Escobedo, is pictured in center.