Dear freshmen lawmakers,
We did it!
After a fiercely contested election, we have finally begun to turn the tide back toward progressive politics.
Midterms usually are sparsely attended, but this year we had an unprecedented turnout. A total of 23 states had double-digit percentage-point increases compared with their 1982-2014 midterm election averages.
And the result is one of the largest and most diverse groups of freshman Congresspeople ever!
We got rid of a ton of incumbents – 104 lawmakers won’t be returning to Washington, DC, in January, making this the third-highest turnover since 1974.
And those taking their place will be largely female. Out of 256 women who ran for U.S. House or Senate seats, 114 have won so far (Some races are still too close to call), according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That makes the 116th Congress the largest class of female lawmakers ever.
Moreover, this incoming group will be incredibly diverse.
We have Jahana Hayes, a nationally-recognized teacher, who will be the first Black Congresswoman from Connecticut. Ayanna Presley, the first black Congresswoman from Massachusetts.
Angie Craig will be the first out LGBTQ Congresswoman from Minnesota. Chris Pappas, the first openly gay Congressman from New Hampshire.
Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland from Kansas and New Mexico will be the first Native American women elected to Congress – ever. And Davids will also be the first openly LGBTQ Congresswoman from the Sunflower State.
Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib will be the first-ever Muslim women in Congress. Omar, a former refugee, will also be the first Somali-American and Tlaib will be the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress. This is especially noteworthy because there have only been two other Muslims to serve in the legislative branch, both men: Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep. André Carson.
And let’s not forget New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Not only is she a Democratic Socialist, but the 29-year-old will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress!
With so many new faces and so much more representation, is it too much to ask for a change in the way things are done in Washington?
Many progressives are hoping not.
After all, it was people power that propelled these new lawmakers into government.
And we did it, because we wanted a change.
So, incoming lawmakers, that’s why I’m writing to you.
As a public school teacher, a father of a school-age child, an education activist and a concerned citizen, it really matters to me what happens to our schools.
Yet so many politicians – Republicans and Democrats – have turned a blind eye to our concerns for years.
No matter their party affiliation, they’ve pushed for increasing school privatization – charter and voucher schools. They’ve hammered us with biased and unscientific standardized tests and used the results to justify any number of atrocities including school closures, withholding funding and even stealing the democratic process from taxpayers. Instead of listening to the concerns of teachers and parents, they’ve followed the caprice of every bored billionaire who thinks they know how to better our schools with halfcocked schemes that cost us billions in taxpayer dollars while wasting children’s time and depriving them of an authentic education.
They’ve chased every new technological fad without regard to how it affects students or their privacy. They’ve let our schools become increasingly more segregated and made deals with private prison companies and unscrupulous security and business interests that made our schools a gateway to incarceration as much as they are to college or careers. They’ve actively engaged or silently stood by as classroom teachers lost autonomy, rights and professionalism. And finally, though many of them talk a good game, they haven’t done nearly enough to ensure that every student gets the same opportunities, resources and equitable funding.
Often the answer is ignorance.
They don’t properly understand the issues facing our schools. They don’t hear from parents, teachers and students – the rank and file. They only hear from the wealthy businesses and philanthrocapitalists preying on our schools like vultures over road kill.
In many cases this is because of the poor quality of education aides on Capital Hill.
Several years ago, I went to DC with other education advocates to ask our representatives to change course. Though we made reservations to speak with our duly-elected lawmakers months in advance, very few of them had the guts to see us face-to-face. We were almost always sent to education aides – well meaning and fresh faced kids only a few years out of college – who wrote down our concerns and sent us on our way with rarely any follow up from the people we’d come to see.
And more often than not, these eager young go-getters were Teach for America (TFA) alumni.
I’m not sure if you know what that means.
Often these rookies have only a few weeks training and just hours of experience before taking over their own classrooms. And unlike education majors, they only need to commit to the job for two years.
This not only does our children a disservice, it does very little to make these former teaching temps into education experts.
But that’s how they’re treated on Capital Hill.
Through programs like TFA’s Capitol Hill Fellows Program, alumni are placed in full-time, paid staff positions with legislators so they can “gain insights into the legislative process by working in a Congressional office” and work “on projects that impact education and opportunities for youth.”
Why do so many lawmakers hire them? Because they don’t cost anything.
Their salaries are paid in full by TFA through a fund established by Arthur Rock, a California tech billionaire who hands the organization bags of cash to pay these educational aides’ salaries. From 2006 to 2008, alone, Rock – who also sits on TFA’s board – contributed $16.5 million for this purpose.
This isn’t about helping lawmakers understand the issues. It’s about framing the issues to meet the policy initiatives of the elite and wealthy donors.
It’s about selling school privatization, high stakes testing and ed-tech solutions.
As Ocasio-Cortez said on a recent call with Justice Democrats, “I don’t think people who are taking money from pharmaceutical companies should be drafting health care legislation. I don’t think people who are taking money from oil and gas companies should be drafting our climate legislation.”
I’d like to add the following: people taking money from the testing and school privatization industry shouldn’t be drafting education policy. People who worked as temps in order to give themselves a veneer of credibility should not be treated the same as bona fide experts who dedicate their lives to kids in the classroom.
But that’s what many lawmakers of both parties have been enabling.
It’s not hard to find authentic experts on education.
There are 3.2 million public school teachers working in this country.
There are still 116,000 fewer public education jobs than there were before the recession of 2007, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive nonprofit think tank.
If we add the number of teaching jobs needed to keep up with growing enrollment, we’re missing 389,000 educators.
So that’s hundreds of thousands of laid off and retired teachers out there – a huge brain trust, a plethora of professionals who know – really know – what goes on in our schools, what they need to succeed and what policies could fix them.
THAT’S where you should go to find your educational aides – not TFA.
And these experts are not hard to find. You can contact the teachers unions – the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. Or, better yet, contact the various education activist groups focused on policy – the Badass Teachers Association or the Network for Public Education. And if you want experts at the crossroads of education and equity, you can contact civil rights groups who focus on our schools like Journey for Justice, a nationwide collective of more than 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in several cities.
Or you can give education bloggers (many of whom are teachers or former teachers) a call – people like Peter Greene, Mercedes Schneider, Nancy Flanagan, Jose Luis Vilson, Julian Vasquez-Helig, and others.
Heck! You can give me a shout out.
We want to help.
So congratulations on your election victories. Let’s work together to transform them into intelligent policies for all our children everywhere.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!