Cuellar's dismay at outcomes for today's kids like himself, stuck in underfunded and poorly performing public schools, led him to co-chair a national commission that's calling for sweeping reforms to the nation's system of financing education and recruiting teachers.
"Our leaders decry but tolerate disparities in student outcomes that are not only unfair but socially and economically dangerous," Cueller and co-chair Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, wrote in their foreword to the final report of the Equity and Excellence Commission.
America's education system "fails our nation and too many of our children" by not distributing opportunity equitably.
The 27-member commission reported its conclusions to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in February.
Many traditional American assumptions about schooling remain "rooted in outmoded timetables, methods and schedules" that fall short in comparison to best practices in other industrialized nations, the report states.
The percentage of American schoolchildren living in poverty — 22 percent — is twice the average of other advanced industrial nations and nearly four times that of Finland, often cited as a leader in public education, it notes. Nearly half of American schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, another proxy for low income.
And the achievement gap dividing children from high- and low-income families grew dramatically — by 30 to 40 percent — between children born in the late 1980s and those born in 2001, according to the report.
"No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children," the report states.
Low-income students, English-language learners and students of color together form a majority of America's young people and are the fastest-growing population in the nation.
In an interview with the Weekly, Cuellar said people should take seriously "that their kids' future depends on the well-being of other kids who are going to other school districts that are not as prosperous."
Without major reform the U.S. will "pay a price in smaller GDP, less vigorous democracy, a more polarized country and a country less able to advance its interests abroad," he said.
The report calls for major redesign of school finance systems to provide the "additional programs, staff and services needed to address the extra academic, social and health needs of students in communities with concentrated poverty."
It calls for universal access to high-quality preschool and federal incentives to "limit the concentration of poor students in particular schools."
The report does not prescribe specific remedies, such as more federal funding or busing. Rather it calls on all levels of government to work together to devise solutions. That's where Cuellar thinks his expertise in "institutional accountability and how organizations work to implement complicated laws" could be useful.
The report also calls for significant changes to teacher recruitment and training.
"Although the world's best-performing school systems recruit their new teachers from the top ranks of their high school and college students, only about 30 percent of U.S. teachers come from the top third of their college class," the report states.
Despite some improvement since the 1980s, "the caliber of student who goes into teaching remains highly variable across the districts," it states.
Cuellar cited two developments he called promising: California Gov. Jerry Brown's efforts to channel more resources to low-income and English-learning students through the Local Control Funding Formula and school-finance reform initiatives in Colorado.
But reform will be "a long-term journey," he said.
He said his school, Calexico High School, had "incredible teachers who worked very hard, but despite their best efforts the courses were not as varied or academically demanding as the school 15 or 20 miles away.
"No matter how much the students or teachers tried, if there wasn't a commitment to curricular equity — that even in Calexico you should be able to take AP physics — some kids won't have the opportunities," he said.
He said he beat the odds by taking classes at a community college and having "extraordinary teachers who let me know they'd work with me to do extra work."
He earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a law degree from Yale and a doctorate in political science from Stanford.
Cuellar, an expert on administrative law and governance, public organizations and transnational security, worked as special assistant to President Barack Obama for justice and regulatory policy in the Domestic Policy Council and chaired Obama's transition team on immigration.
In July he will become director of Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Eric Hanushek also were among the 27 members of the Equity and Excellence Commission.