Putting Education Reform To The Test

Five Questions For The National Education Association VP

NEA Public Relations/flickr

NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen

The first presidential debate of 2012 will be held tomorrow night between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.

The National Education Association will be watching.

NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen says the differences between the two candidates “are night and day.”

The NEA has already endorsed Obama, and Eskelsen was appointed by Obama to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

In a conversation ahead of the presidential debate, Eskelsen repeatedly brought up comments Romney made about class sizes.

Here’s some context from the New York Times:

“Mitt Romney said that while governor of Massachusetts, he was able to do more with less during an economic downturn.

He repeated assertions made during the Republican primary campaign that slightly larger classes — a result of cuts in Massachusetts state aid to schools in 2003 and 2004 — were not as important in student learning as the quality of teachers.”

Eskelsen is a teacher who knows about large classes.

Q: The NEA has already endorsed Obama, so what is unappealing about Gov. Romney’s education policy?

A: When you look at Governor Romney saying things like class size doesn’t matter, there’s not a parent out there I know who agrees with that…I’m a Utah teacher. I had 39 fifth graders in a room. That was hard on me, but it was horrible for the kids.

But I think the thing that really gave me nightmares was to hear him say I want to keep America a place where you can get all the education you can afford. I’m scared by what he means by that.

Q: What is appealing about Obama’s education policy?

A: He helped pass an education jobs bill that saved the jobs of 450,000 teachers and education support staff, because no one was laying off the kids. We were going to end up with kids across the country in classes of 40 or 50. He said class size does matter.

The centerpiece of his economic recovery plan was that kids would be able to afford to go to college because it’s quickly becoming out of the budget range of most middle class families.

Q: Florida’s Republican controlled Legislature and governor want expanded charter schools and school choice programs.  What does education in Florida stand to gain or lose come November?

A: The evidence on things like charter schools, now that they’ve been around for quite a while – 17% actually succeed in being better schools than the few schools that they were supposed to replace or do better than.

We’re looking for ways to innovate…That’s what I loved about President Obama talking about innovation, talking about – let’s try something that’s going to work but let’s actually find out through studies – did that work?

He understands the infrastructure, something as important and basic as class size and something as important and basic as – I graduated and I want to go to college, but I can’t afford it.

You have to have someone that’s willing to look at things differently but not forgetting the basic infrastructure.

Q: Florida lawmakers were one vote away from passing parent trigger legislation, and it’s likely to be back. What is the NEA’s stance on this issue?

A: The fads are going to come and go. When you have something that says parents can vote to fire someone or take over a school, there’s no place where that’s ever worked.

Every place that actually said we changed that school culture, they did it with the educators, the parents – parents have to be a part of that, the administration, and even the business community around that school all saying we have to identify what we’re doing right, and we have to be honest about what we’re doing wrong and plan how we’re going to change what we’re doing wrong.

Q: Since there may be some teachers who plan to vote for Gov. Romney, what do you hope to hear from him tomorrow night?

A: I want to hear exactly what is going to be proposed from Gov. Romney. We hear him saying things like class size doesn’t matter. Okay, we disagree with you on that, but what does matter? That’s what I want to hear.

At the end of the conversation, Eskelsen said voting is an out-of-class lesson.

“It’s the ultimate civics lesson,” she said. “Take your kids, take your grandkids. It matters who wins.”


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