October 19, 2011 Ricardo Soto joined the California Charter Schools Association in September as Senior Vice President, Legal Advocacy and General Counsel. In his new role, he oversees the Legal Team, provides general legal advice to the Association and in relation to legal strategies targeted to support the Association's statewide and regional advocacy efforts, the membership, the charter school community, and CCSA's initiatives and strategic objectives.
We sat down with Ricardo to learn about his background, his thoughts on why charter schools and education reform are important, and his first impressions of CCSA.
Tell us about your background.
I worked for the San Diego Unified School District from the late 1990s until 2005. While there, I represented the district on education reform efforts undertaken by the superintendent, such as changing educational programs and implementation of reforms at the school. At San Diego Unified, I had the chance to build knowledge and experience around charter school law. I also worked on a variety of educational program issues, particularly special education matters for students, and human resource issues.
From San Diego Unified, I left for Sacramento, where I served as Assistant Secretary and Legal Counsel in the Office of the Secretary of Education for California. My primary role there was to provide legal advice to the Secretary of Education and Governor's Office on legal issues around education, from preschool through higher education--including elementary and secondary education, community colleges, the California State University and University of California systems, even student financial aid matters. Basically, whenever legal/policy issues arose at the state level, I would provide legal review and analysis. I had the opportunity to work with the State Board of Education and other education agencies at the state level, and advocacy groups, including CCSA, on educations issues around the state.
After 18 months, I returned to San Diego and practiced law at Best Best & Krieger. My work centered on representing school districts, charter schools and community colleges. I focused on special education, funding matters, and HR issues.
Then, in October 2009, I accepted an appointment to serve as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the United States Department of Education (USDOE). In that role, I was involved in enforcement and policy work, and operational matters. OCR has more than 600 attorneys, investigators and staff in 12 regional offices across the country. My job was to make sure OCR was vigorously enforcing federal civil rights laws by investigating discrimination complaints, and to develop policy so that educational institutions understand their obligations with respect to federal civil rights laws. It was a great opportunity to learn how programs and policy are developed across the USDOE.
And now you're at CCSA. What are your first impressions of the Association?
I've been on board for about a month, and all of my preconceptions about the work and commitment of the organization have been confirmed. This is a focused, committed group of individuals driving the agenda to make sure charters have the appropriate supports and legal environment to grow and expand, locally and statewide. The knowledge and commitment staff has demonstrated on the matters and issues that affect charter schools is unparalleled, and I'm looking forward to learning more about the issues that impact charters from my colleagues, and school developers and operators.
How do you think about the difference between the General Counsel and Legal Advocacy parts of your position?
As General Counsel for CCSA, I'll be working with my Legal Team colleagues to make sure the organization develops and implements processes that are legally compliant, but serves our members' needs and facilitate the work the organization undertakes.
As SVP of Legal Advocacy, I'm looking to identify legal cases or potential legal issues where we need to be vigilant to protecting the rights of petitioners--whether parents, educators, or community folks--to develop schools that make sense for students and their communities. It's also looking at the legal complexities, understanding the consequences of potential issues and being positioned to be a vigorous advocate for charter schools.
You've worked for school districts, in state government, and in federal government. How will that impact your work at the Association?
While I was at the state, I had several opportunities to travel and visit educational programs throughout the state run by districts, county offices of education, and charters. It was a good experience to appreciate the educational challenges faced by communities across the state, and the way people were working to develop solutions that addressed student learning. Similarly, working at the USDOE was an exceptional opportunity to see how programs and policy are developed across the agency. I will use that experience and knowledge to support strategies that help CCSA and its members.
What drew you to the General Counsel and Senior Vice President, Legal Advocacy position at CCSA?
My work has always been about trying to ensure that all students, but in particular our disadvantaged student groups, have access to a quality education. I've always been in an office or organization where we've supported education reform efforts. I've been involved and worked with leaders who understand the role of charters in improving educational opportunities for elementary and secondary students.
I knew of the work that CCSA was doing here and its importance for students in California. I am excited for the opportunity to continue my work in K-12 education reform efforts. Charters are doing amazing things with some of the most challenging student populations in the state. I think it's critical that charters be part of the solution to the problems facing education today. I'm committed to the mission of the Association to grow and develop quality charter school programs for the benefit of students.
And you also have a personal connection.
My sisters and I, who are children of immigrant from Mexico, had so many opportunities due to our education. We all went to college; two of us are now involved in education. My sister runs a charter school in Chicago. So from my family background, I understand the importance of a quality education programs. Education is the great equalizer. It opens up everyone's potential for whatever they want to do. And, I want to use my skills to support those same educational opportunities for other children.