Down and Out and Lobbying for Public Education

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Let’s get one thing straight right from the start.

I’m no lobbyist.

I’m just a private citizen who’s sick of seeing his tax dollars swallowed up by big corporations under the guise of educational accountability.

I’m just a public school teacher who’s tired of his profession being demonized by policymakers and media talking heads alike.

And I’m just a father who’s worried that his daughter won’t get the same comprehensive public education he received as a child.

No one paid me. In fact, I bankrolled myself.

So like more than 300 members of the Badass Teachers Association (BATS), I came to Washington, D.C., to speak with my Congresspeople.

And what a day it was!

I met with Senators Pat Toomey (R-PA), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Corey Booker (D-NJ). I met with U.S. Reps Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ).

Well, actually I met with their legislative aides.

None of the actual lawmakers made time to sit down with a flesh and blood teacher.

In one case, a legislator seemingly went out of his way to avoid me.

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While sitting on the couch in Doyle’s office, he came out of a room to the left of me, asked his secretary for packing tape and then told her he was leaving for the day. It was 2:47 p.m. on Friday.

And they say teachers have easy hours!

I can’t say whether he was actively avoiding me. I made an appointment to see him, but it was never specified if I’d be meeting with him in person or if I’d be with his aide.

For all I know his staff never let him know I was a constituent sitting there on his couch in a suit and tie with a folder perched on my lap. But it didn’t feel good.

Maybe I should have said something. “Congressman Doyle! May I have a moment?”

But I frankly couldn’t believe this was happening. Moreover, he looks a lot different in a purple Hawaiian shirt than he does in all his press photos wearing a suit. I had to check his picture on my phone to make sure I was really seeing this correctly.

I was.

Still the meetings I had with these kids helping my legislators decide public policy were actually quite productive.

Without exception these youngsters were friendly, polite and knowledgeable. They seemed receptive to new ideas, were eager to hear my point of view, asked intelligent questions and were honest about where their bosses sometimes disagreed with me.

In Sen. Toomey’s office his assistants even asked if I was THAT Steven Singer.

“Who?” I said.

And they told me about a famous advertising campaign in eastern PA where a jeweler’s competitors are seen to complain “I HATE STEVEN SINGER.”

I laughed and told them it wasn’t me, but inside I wondered if that might explain the difficulty I had in some circumstances making these appointments. Maybe congressional staff thought I was pranking them. “Steven Singer wants an appointment!? Yeah! I’ll schedule it right after we see Mickey Mouse!”

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I first met with Devorah Goldman, Toomey’s legislative correspondent on education and other issues. She’d only been on the job for about a year, but her qualifications included a degree in social work and she had worked in a public school resource center.

She was a very good listener. She heard me out as I spoke about a homeless student in my classes this year. She listened as I explained why Common Core is bad policy, why we need equitable school funding, an end to high stakes standardized tests, reigning in charter schools and voucher systems, and an end to judging teachers based on their students’ test scores.

Her boss isn’t exactly known as an education advocate. But she said he would agree with most of what I had said.

The main area of dispute would be charter schools. Toomey is in favor of expanding them so students can escape “failing schools.”

I explained that it was bad policy to try to save some students and let others fall behind. We need to make sure ALL our schools do an excellent job. Moreover, the Senator’s metric for determining which schools are failing is faulty at best.

I explained that traditional public schools often outperformed charter schools, which lack transparency and accountability and are wasting taxpayers dollars.

“We’ll just have to disagree on that point,” she said without explanation.

But she agreed to continue to take input from me and the BATS in the future.

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At Doyle’s office, I eventually sat down with Hannah Malvin, a political science major who, at least, is from the Pittsburgh area – her boss’ legislative district.

She listened intently to my tales of education woe, even asking follow up questions. But she was surprised I supported the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Even the strongest supporters of the rewrite of the federal law that governs K-12 schools would admit it isn’t perfect. However, I would contend that the new version being cobbled together by the House and the Senate appears to be a slight improvement over what we have now – No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Some educators think even this rewrite doesn’t go far enough to scale back standardized testing (and I sympathize but do not agree with that position). However, Malvin said Doyle had issues with it because it scaled back too much.

This was the issue I heard from Democrats all day. There isn’t enough accountability in the ESEA rewrite. How will we know which schools need extra help, they asked again-and-again.

I tried to explain that all they had to do was look at per-pupil spending. It’s no mystery which kids aren’t getting enough resources. It’s all right there on a ledger.

To her credit she heard me out and agreed to continue to dialogue with me on this subject in the future.

Next, I met up with some fellow teacher lobbyists from New Jersey and we dropped in unannounced on Booker’s office.

It’s not that we didn’t try to make an appointment. His staff never returned our calls and emails.

In fact, last week a fellow teacher not with us on Capitol Hill, Michele Miller,  even got into a scuffle with Booker on Twitter about elementary school funding. He told her to call his office and he would talk to her in detail.

To my knowledge, he never did. However, she was connected by phone to one of his aides. I’m told this is just modus operandi for Booker – strong talk in a public forum but shying away when the cameras aren’t rolling.

In any case, Booker’s senior education and health policy adviser Ashley Eden agreed to talk with us when we showed up to the office. Though her background isn’t in education, I can’t recall exactly what it is in. I do remember she has been doing this sort of legislative work for lawmakers for about 4 years – longer than any other aide we met.

She immediately made us feel welcome and found many areas of agreement. Bookers’ major point of contention – like fellow Democrat Doyle – was accountability.

How do we know which kids need help without giving them standardized tests?

Groan. But at least I had reinforcements: BATS Assistant Manager Melissa Tomlinson and retired NJ teacher extraordinaire Elizabeth DeMarco.

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Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire conversation was when Eden said Booker just had to back standardized testing because every Civil Rights organization wanted it. She even criticized the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) for not supporting black and brown students.

We stopped her right there. No. Every Civil Rights organization does NOT support testing. Journey for Justice – a coalition of 38 such organizations, in conjunction with 175 additional likeminded groups wrote to both the House and Senate asking to eliminate testing. Didn’t Sen. Booker see the letter?

Suddenly she remembered it.

She said she read it real quickly and didn’t like one sentence in it so she ignored it.

Which sentence?

Something about expecting poor and minority students to do badly on tests.

I explained that it has nothing to do with thinking these children can’t achieve at the same level as other children. It’s a matter of resources. If Sen. Booker was in a foot race against someone in a Monster Truck, I’d vote on the truck. Doesn’t mean Booker can’t run or that he might not even win. But the smart money is on Big Foot.

I joined the two ladies for their meeting with Smith as well.

His legislative assistant, Katherine Talalas, was perhaps the most knowledgeable aide with whom we talked. Her mother is a special education teacher, her brother is a paraprofessional working in a public school and she went to law school focusing on education issues.

She also took more written notes than any other assistant. With her nothing seemed canned. It was a real conversation about what her boss had done to help special education students and how he might continue to help in the future.

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I was on my own again to meet with Sen. Casey’s aide, Jared Solomon.

This was one of the most fascinating and perplexing conversations I had all day.

He was warm, friendly, and had a depth of knowledge that was a bit more political than school-centered.

He agreed with almost everything I said. Casey supports 95% of the things that are important to me in education.

I could have smiled and walked away happy, but Solomon was so gregarious he kept talking. We shared our backgrounds.

He proudly admitted that he had been a Teach for America (TFA) recruit. He worked two years in a Baltimore public school and then left. He knew it wasn’t going to be his permanent job. He was emulating his parents who had joined the Peace Corps. He did TFA because he wanted the experience.

Then he moved to the administrative offices of Michelle Rhee’s Washington, D.C., Public Schools.

He only worked there two years – only one of which was under Rhee’s administration – but he respected what they had done. He said he disagreed with 80% of their policies and even quit because he was tired of being blamed for practices with which he didn’t agree. But, he added, the people in Rhee’s administration worked harder than anyone he knew, and he thought they really had the best interests of the kids at heart.

I’m tempted to chalk it up to the same feeling the incredible blogger Jennifer Berkshire (a.k.a. Edushyster) says she gets when she interviews many corporate school reformers. We may disagree with them, but they really do believe this stuff.

But something happened that doesn’t sit well with me. In an unguarded moment of a more than hour-long conversation, Solomon pulled the same stunt Eden did for Sen. Booker. He said all the Civil Rights groups were crying out for testing. But when I called him out on it, he immediately took it back. It was like he, too, knew this was untrue. It was a talking point, quickly to be conceded if called out and then move on to another argument.

I frankly don’t know what to make of it. The arguments are too similar among Democrats and Republicans to shrug off. Each is speaking from a party line script. That can’t just be a coincidence.

And why would Casey, a legislator who supposedly agrees with me 95% of the time on education, hire as his education expert someone who was actively involved in many of the practices that go directly against his beliefs? Why would someone like Solomon, who was part of the corporate education reform movement, really be on my side against these policies?

It’s befuddling to say the least.

Now that it’s all over, I’m so glad I did this.

Will this change the nation’s education policies? Probably not.

But I am only one of hundreds of people who climbed Capitol Hill in the last two days and met with more than 52 federal legislators to fight against the standardization and privatization of education.

And tomorrow we, BATS, will hold a Teachers Congress to further solidify our goals and decide where the great ship of real positive school change should go.

I am so looking forward to it.

But this teacher, soon-to-be BAT Congressman, needs to go to bed.

Here’s to a brilliant tomorrow for our children.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

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18 thoughts on “Down and Out and Lobbying for Public Education

  1. “And they say teachers have easy hours!”

    And that is the problem. They only look at the hours teachers spend in class teaching students. They don’t look at the hours outside of class time. Class time is close in size to the tip of an iceberg. Over 90% of an iceberg’s volume ( and mass ) is underwater.

    During the thirty years I was a teacher, I worked between 60 and 100 hours a week and 25 hours was teaching five periods a day for a little less than one hour a class.

    That means 58.4% – 75% of a teacher’s work is underwater and out of sight—-and that is how the RheeFormers want the public to think.

    But here is the way it really was.

    I was usually up by 5 AM to make it to school be 7 AM, on average. Some days I was up earlier to make it to school by 6 AM when the custodians unlocked the gates to the parking lot. I seldom made it to school after 7 AM and if I did it was usually due to an accident on the parking lot they call a freeway.

    My first class started a little after 8 AM. That hour or more before my first class was always prep time to get ready to the lesson that I was going to teach. My last class ended a little before 3 PM. I usually left campus between 4PM – 5 PM and after I arrived home I ate a quick dinner and then settled down to correct papers, plan lessons, prep for future lessons, make phone calls to parents and that went until after 8 PM and ended before 9 PM only because I was too tired to go on.

    Then during the seven years I taught four period of English and one period of journalism, the class that produced the monthly high school newspaper, several days a month, I didn’t leave campus until after 10 PM when we had to leave becasue the custodians were turning on the school alarms. On those days when I was at school 16 hours straight, I corrected papers at my desk while the journalism students worked hard to make the deadlines for the next paper.

    There are a lot of teachers who take on extra duties. The full time coaches often teach five period a day and then coach their teams in the afternoons. Some coaches work with their teams before school and after school and almost all coaches give up one or two day son the weekends to be with their teams when they are competing against other schools. I knew coaches were arrived at 6 AM and coaches who were there as late as 9 PM. They were deducted. They wanted their teams to be the best they could be, and sports is not just the two B’s and one F. There’s track, soccer, pole vault, swim, tennis, golf, etc. That sucks up a lot of teachers who teach five period a day in a classroom or teach PE who then spend time before or after school with their teams.

    Then there are the teachers who teach five periods a day in addition to working after school with the band, the chorus, drama, academic decathlon, and so much more.

    I haven’t even touched all the campus clubs. Students have a lot of interests and clubs can’t exist with teacher sponsors. Those teachers give up lunch and after school time so those clubs can meet. Many of those clubs also do things on weekends like the hiking club me and another teacher sponsored that would go on monthly hikes in the San Gabriel mountains in Los Angeles County or the chess club that met in my classroom at lunch every day to play chess. Some of those hikes were so popular we asked parents to join us so we would have more adult supervision, but parents seldom if ever had time for their children so we turned to other teachers from schools in our school district who gave up their Saturday or Sunday to spend the day with kids who lived in poverty in a gang infested barrio so they could experience what it was like to spend a day hiking in a national park forest. For most of those kids, it was the only time they got out of the barrio and away from the gangs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your work on Capital Hill…I know it can be frustrating to go in, try to change minds, and be met with nods, approval, and then watch the congresspeople do exactly what you were arguing against.

    Do they really “believe in what they’re doing?” Perhaps…but I have a feeling that they also believe in getting the donations from Pearson, Walton, Gates, and others…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The first thing I felt after reading the account of your day is, “Wow. He’s a guy that doesn’t just talk about changing things, but puts his boots on the ground and takes a lot of steps to help bring about change.” That’s inspiring. Good work! – JM

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank-you for your time & effort to lobby for public education I enjoyed your blog account. It’s disheartening that these individuals have so little understanding of educational testing and how little test scores tell us about kids. Selling & marketing testing has distorted and misled the public on every aspect of education.

    No other profession is told by non-experts how to use the tools of their trade. Why is it so with educators?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. COVERING UP PAY-FOR-PLAY: Tracing back the events of the last few months, we saw that a bill was moving through the Senate Education Committee to right the wrongs of NCLB. We heard it was bipartisan, and would curb mandates for Common Core and test-based evaluations. But these were RTTT wrongs. The heart and soul of NCLB is federally mandated annual tests. When we heard about proposals to reduce eliminate or reduce this mandate, there was opposition.

    We did not see an open process, we did not see data, nor research, we saw instead a whole bunch of civil rights groups come forward and assert, without evidence, that struggling minority children could not be identified or supported without annual testing. Here is one such letter from May: http://www.civilrights.org/press/2015/anti-testing-efforts.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/

    As we see, these civil rights groups all have one thing in common, funding coming from Gates Foundation or like-minded reform groups.

    Members of Congress now had their cue, to hide behind this coalition. Obama also signaled he wanted the testing to stay, asserting these same assumptions.

    Then we saw the Tester amendment, seeking to scale back annual testing to gradespan testing, a bit of a compromise. Then we saw the civil rights groups in Journey4Justice letter, making the argument that testing does more harm than good.

    Too little too late, the ESEA would keep annual testing in. NY and other states immediately renewed long term contracts with for-profit vendors, cinching the deal.

    WHAT WE DID WRONG: Steven Singer and the BATs did an amazing job, but teachers this summer had to reinvent the wheel. Reform lobbyists have had their contacts established for years and had critical access to lawmakers in the months before the BATs came to DC. We needed to make the Tester amendment a huge public debate, demanding evidence. The unions could have run TV ads if they gave a rip.

    We needed to be in DC about 3 weeks earlier than we were. Perhaps the ESEA was sped through both chambers because they wanted to quickly lock in the pay-for-play of billion dollar testing contracts. But even if we did this earlier, it’s not clear whether facts and reason could trump corporate money. So I think we need to turn our attention to hardball electoral politics and start discussing vote-pledging for individual candidates.

    Like

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