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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.