by Karen Wolfe. Karen is an LAUSD parent leader and activist in support of public schools.
It seems everyone is asking “Who can fill Henry Waxman’s shoes?” The Congressman sent to Washington in the post-Watergate wave became a legendary watchdog and one of the most influential liberals in Congress.
Big shoes indeed.
There is no shortage of candidates vying to replace him—and plenty of campaign issues.
For public education advocates—those of us in a grassroots national movement to take back our schools—education trumps all.
We have become one-issue voters. Because of our deep level of engagement and our reach, education voters are making a difference in elections across the country. New mayors in New York—and just this week, Newark—are thanking education voters for their victories. Those cities are showing that education can be a decisive issue.
Education policy even made the Late Night TV circuit this month when comedian Louis C.K. joked that if the students don’t do well on high stakes tests, the school gets burned down. Indeed, it feels like an attack on our children, and on those charged with protecting them and instilling a lifelong love of learning. Those are just the kinds of things that motivate voters.
Education voters have a detailed understanding of how policies are impacting schools, teachers, students and parents. Vague promises to “put kids first!” just aren’t trustworthy. Buzzwords like “accountability” and “outcomes” are recognized as code for privatization. Race to the Top, Arne Duncan’s ridiculous policy that tells the weakest among us to run faster in order to reach the gold ring of federal funding, provides more resources to successful schools rather than those in most need. Policies like these have left parents and teachers fearful and defensive.
The national assault on public education has been an allied effort by both parties—from Arne Duncan to Chris Christie, from Rahm Emmanuel to Bobby Jindal. Gone are the days when a Democrat can be counted on for support. Candidates need to be analyzed beyond their party. We need to know their position on Race to the Top and Common Core. Do they condone the scandalous overuse of standardized testing which forces a narrowed curriculum that is neither rich nor deep?
Candidates need to have given these issues considerable thought—and they need to be asked. At a recent progressive candidates’ forum in Venice, not a single question about education was asked. I was disappointed because I had helped organize it, sure that my issue would get its due. What was even more depressing was that none of the candidates even raised the topic of education with the exception of Matt Miller who boasted about his involvement with former Mayor Villaraigosa’s Partnership Schools.
After the forum ended, I decided to make the rounds to press the candidates myself. I felt like I was in a relay, but instead of passing a baton, I carried it from one candidate to the next.
Time was limited. No point wasting it with Matt Miller, the most dangerous candidate to public education. His opinions are solidly formed on every single issue, which seems to be what impresses people the most—including the LA Times editorial board. But his talking points read like a corporate privatizer’s playbook. That screeching of fingernails across the chalkboard is the sound of him helping to pull Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party to the right.
Barbara Mulvaney brings a vast intelligence and serious accomplishment on the world stage, but what does she know about public education? Marianne Williamson is right that we need a systemic change in our politics, but her passing remark that she’s for neighborhood schools and charters betrays a woeful ignorance of the competitive landscape in which the winner takes all.
I approached Wendy Greuel, who had a lot to say about “women’s issues.” I suppose Emily’s List represents some women’s single issue. The first red flag for education voters though is that she supports Race to the Top. Her prediction that Common Core will really improve the overemphasis on testing is seriously misguided. That misjudgment is typical of California policy makers and even many teachers in our state—who are only beginning to implement Common Core. They see it in theory and tout the oft-repeated promise of “more critical thinking”—isn’t everyone for that? To her credit, when I suggested that she talk with some teachers and parents in New York, which is a year ahead of California in rolling out Common Core, she agreed to do that. If she follows through, she will find that over 33,000 students opted out of the second year of testing this spring because parents and teachers have no confidence in the tests’ validity. No doubt about it, Wendy Greuel would certainly get things done in Congress. But education voters would need a firm commitment from her to reverse course on Race to the Top.
We need elected officials with deeply thought out plans for supporting public schools. Senator Ted Lieu is such a candidate. I asked him if he had formed an opinion on Race to the Top, or on the overemphasis on standardized testing. “Yes, I have,” he said firmly. “I am against Race to the Top.” He said he is very concerned about the overuse of standardized tests, especially as the father of a third grader. I pressed on. Does he support the Network for Public Education’s call for Congressional hearings into the matter? He was not aware of it, and asked me to send him information. You bet I will.
The biggest lesson of the day was that education advocates should make sure their questions get asked and answered. In an election with plenty of issues, we need to make sure education doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
With only three weeks left before the open primary, education voters might resist the call to analyze Howard Waxman’s shoes and, instead, lace up their own. This is when candidates are the most receptive and accessible. Engage them and get beyond the rhetoric. Let them know that education voters play a big part in how elections turn out. We cannot afford to sit this one out. Let’s hit the pavement!