Will Progressive Women Legislators Fight to Protect Public Education?

On International Women’s Day, Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (and Congresswoman) Debbie Wasserman-Schultz announced the creation of a Women’s Institute as an official project of the Democratic Party. The Institute will reach out to and engage women who identify as Democrats and Independents in order to enable the party to better organize supporters to re-elect President Obama, as well as distribute information on the party’s stand on issues and the achievements of the Obama administration to uphold the rights of women. The effort in the short-term may not be intended to hear the concerns of women voters, but in the course of asking for votes and support in thousands of locally-organized GOTV events, women cannot help but voice the issues that move them.

The Institute’s creation is extremely exciting, especially for many of us who’ve felt disconnected from the party or perhaps thought about running for office to end the War on Women, but didn't know where to start for lack of support or mentorship.

Chairwoman Wasserman-Schultz mentioned that every possible channel would be opened to communicate with women voters — house parties, live chats, Twitter events, women-to-women phone banks, regional caucuses, video conference trainings, and mentoring of grasstops spokeswomen who can be surrogates for the Obama campaign. In addition, Chairwoman Schultz said she would blog updates that’ll appear on the Democrats.org blog. In the coming months, everything will be geared for the 2012 election but what really needs to happen is to continue the work in the off cycle. (If only we’d had this leading up to 2010!)

After some important discussion the ongoing struggle to secure equal pay for equal work, and equal and full health coverage under one’s insurer through the Affordable Care Act, the discussion turned to the need to end the current War on Women. For example, the recent attempt by Republicans to pass the damaging Blunt-Rubio Amendment and leave women’s access to health insurance-covered contraceptives up to their employers instead of up to women was only stopped by the actions of Democrats in the Senate.

I then asked about education reform.

Can the women who make up the largely female teaching workforce and the women who comprise the largely female volunteer force find a place at the DNC Women’s Institute to air concerns regarding the privatization of public schools through charters, vouchers, and the narrowing of the curriculum? We education activists hear one thing from the President, and often wildly different things from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I named Race to the Top’s condition-laden requirement to states to build up “accountability” systems that enrich testing companies but seem to leave no money for classrooms where kids and teachers are. Or No Child Left Behind, the law that requires Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) be measured even though that yardstick’s clearly broken, or the waiver from NCLB compliance that insists on “school turnarounds” (charters) and yet more “accountability.” I mentioned the heated battle to resist a charter school bill that would essentially empower corporate charter chains to eviscerate public schools in Florida, Wasserman-Schultz’s home state.

She acknowledged that she’s been following closely the controversial “Parent Trigger” bill up for a vote in Florida this week, which piloted — unsuccessfully — in California. “As a mom with three kids in the public schools in Florida” Wasserman-Schultz has been following it in the state legislature and keeping in touch with activists and stakeholders fighting its passage as someone who also opposes the bill’s implementation.

Here is what some of those activists have to say:

Pointing to the gridlock in the House and Senate, Wasserman-Schultz said that the House committee on education was only able to deliver a partisan update to ESEA and that there’s much to be done to continue the work of Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

There was a bit of an impasse when I replied that many of the very motivated, active, and dedicated volunteers who would conceivably be working to re-elect President Obama would also be the same people who, for one, have a hard time with the mandates for states to open their doors to unchecked corporate charter school growth, undermining and de-funding the very neighborhood schools these women volunteer so hard to protect. Don’t forget, 89% of children attend a public school of some kind. This impasse, if anything, is proof that a sustained conversation with women on education policy leading up to and beyond the election season through the Women’s Institute is needed.

Certainly Congressional Democrats are facing an uphill battle legislatively with a GOP majority that’s succeeded in passing the least legislation in a session in over 50 years, and that has failed to substantively address the economy, jobs, or the lingering and still painful effects of the recession President Obama inherited from former President Bush. The need to end the War on Women‘s health, to continue to chart a cautious yet strong path in foreign policy, and focus on middle class job creation are all paramount. We who care about public education accomplish nothing if children are not also lifted out of poverty, prepared well for school by stable and prosperous families, and parented by adults able to devote to kids the time and energy they deserve.

None of the weaving together of our frayed social safety net and wobbly economy, and restoration of the optimism Americans are known for happens unless we re-elect President Obama and regain the House and Senate.

But here’s why the DNC and the Women’s Institute should pay particular attention to the education policies of the Democratic Party: women who volunteer and organize and fundraise for the PTA or for President Obama one day are women who will run for office the next. They know how to read a budget, lobby a legislator, craft legislation, run a successful parcel tax campaign, persuade their neighbors, and organize from the unit to the council level. These are foot soldiers for the re-election, to be sure. But this is also raw political talent the DNC — or the Obama administration — would be foolish to squander, or to turn away with alienating, privatizing policies. In the long term, these are precisely the women the DNC should be cultivating to run for office at every level using the Institute to mentor willing women.

There may not be “consensus,” as Chairwoman Wasserman-Schultz says of Democrats on education policy, but there is a tremendous need to affirm core Democratic Party values of equal opportunity, equal access, and excellence in all public schools, in a way that preserves the publicly-funded and democratically-decided administration of resources devoted to educating the nation’s children. You shouldn’t have to win a lottery to have your child get a good education.

When all schools are good, we won’t need a sweepstakes. And we have plenty of ways of experimenting with magnet, community, alternative, and other forms of school innovation soundly within the public school system that does not open the door to profiteering.

Will progressive women fighting to protect public education from privatization be able to engage the Democratic Party through the Women’s Institute? There may not be a choice for the Party, as women who are parent leaders at their schools are a core constituency and by virtue of battles at the state and local levels, vocal to boot. And there isn’t much of a choice for those women, as Republican candidates are clearly more interested in putting indigent children to work as school janitors, insisting that everyone homeschool, or dispensing useless advice to young people to “shop around” for affordable college or join the military than offering real education policy.

Here’s hoping we can start an important dialogue as we all gear up for 2012.

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