A Meeting with Hillary on Education Issues

On Monday (Nov. 9, 2015) I met with Hillary Clinton and AFT President Randi Weingarten to discuss educational issues – to express my concerns about a particular issue that is important to me and to hear Secretary Clinton’s views on a range of K-12 educational issues.

IMG_0499-1It was a private meeting – just Secretary Clinton, President Weingarten, and me. And 24 other teachers. And some people from the political staff and the communications staff of the AFT. And a few Clinton Campaign staff. And a couple of Secret Service agents. And a photographer and three cameramen. It was private in the sense that no press was invited, and the doors to the room were closed.

A wide range of topics got discussed. Common Core, high stakes testing, special education, teacher evaluations, and educational funding stand out in my memory. But that’s not a complete list. The list was mostly developed in a meeting of participants just before the meeting with Secretary Clinton.

When the topics of Common Core and high stakes testing came up, the response was along the lines of No one ever thought it would come to this. Secretary Clinton seemed to say that we needed national standards, but not necessarily these national standards. It was my impression that perhaps just national guidelines for what standards should look like might be sufficient. That was my impression. While she supports the idea that we need a test, I never heard her say that we need to test every child every year. She was explicit on the question of the value-added model: test scores should not be part of a teacher’s evaluation.

Twenty-five teachers were in the circle of chairs in the room. Most were from New Hampshire. There were a few from Boston, a couple from New York, one from Connecticut, one from Baltimore, and then Dorothy from Ohio and me from West Virginia. At least one was a paraprofessional. We were in the circle for an hour. President Weingarten moderated and called on people. Teachers asked questions, Secretary Clinton answered.

Secretary Clinton talked about special education funding. She said that the original law had committed to pay 40% of the cost of special education but that the most we’d ever gotten funded was 17%. I thought about what my school (where 30+% of kids have an IEP) could do if our resources were doubled.

How did I end up at this meeting? The AFT Action Alert system sent out a request for questions we’d ask Hillary if we got the chance. It was a contest. I’m told there were about 5000 responses. My question was one of three picked. “If elected President will you support and fund community school initiatives?” When my time came I mentioned school-based health clinics and wraparound services, and I talked about addressing Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs before looking at Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom.

The two other winners were Liz Lynch (President of the North Bergen, NJ Federation of Teachers – and a BAT) and Dorothy Fair of Cleveland (who works in a unionized charter school). Liz asked about high stakes testing, Dorothy asked about charter school accountability. The AFT flew me from Charleston West Virginia to New Hampshire for the event and covered my expenses.

In response to Dorothy’s question, Secretary Clinton talked about the need for charter school accountability and about the fact that charters don’t take the hardest kids to teach. There was also a question about “churn” – about constantly changing what we do as teachers and what products we use. Secretary responded that we needed to do what works and stop being the testing ground for new and interesting products. We should stick with what works.

There were other questions. Secretary Clinton talked about the importance of Title I, and teacher preparation, about the role child poverty plays in education, the reauthorization of ESEA and about early childhood education. I’m sure I’m missing something.

President Weingarten saved my question for last. And the answer to my question was a one word answer: yes. Then Secretary Clinton went on talked about child poverty and school resources and the plight of rural America. “We have too many poor kids attending too many poor schools and that’s the real tragedy in education, not test scores,” Secretary Clinton said.

I was impressed with the detail Secretary Clinton went into in her answers. I was struck by how she was both relaxed and passionate at the same time. While my question and the questions of the other two winners were contrived in advanced and could have been the subject of specific briefings, many of the questions were the product of a discussion that took place right before coming into the room for the meeting. Of course, I doubt there are many secret issues in education.

For the last seven years I have been disappointed in the Democratic agenda for education. Perhaps the Obama administration has kept Conservatives from selling our souls to corporate America. But while we might have gotten to keep our educational souls, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education has let Corporate America squat in the yard. I was a victim of one of Arne Duncan’s School Improvement Grants. I’ve expressed my exasperation at times by saying that if education was the only issue I might stay home on Election Day.

I did not leave New Hampshire with the impression that a Clinton Presidency would mean eight more years of neo-liberal education reformers having a free hand. I left New Hampshire with the impression that she will restore the teacher voice in education policy – in a way that it wasn’t heard when Common Core was being formed, in a way that it hasn’t been heard in the last 15 years of federal policy. I know that the activist wing of American Education is still shopping around for a perfect candidate. I may not get everything I want from Hillary Clinton’s term as President. But it’s not difficult to imagine the level of disrespect I’ll get or the lack of resources I’ll have under a Rubio Administration or a Trump Department of Education or a Cruz Presidency.

It’s not just that the choices are limited. I’m with Hillary. I’m with her because I now believe she will be a far better education President than we’ve had in quite a while. Maybe since Lyndon Johnson.

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