At a Spanish restaurant in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, one of the most powerful women in education, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, pumps up union members by telling them where her career started – the cafeteria.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia is the first Latina elected to lead the nation’s largest union – the National Education Association.
Thursday was her fourth day on the job. She started at 6 a.m. with a tour of the Keys by plane. She followed with visits to Allapattah Middle School and Hialeah High School in Miami-Dade County.
And she wrapped up a 12-hour day with a high-energy pitch for union members to get out and support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist in his race against Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
“I like to say I was the lunch lady – that was my first job in a public school,” Eskelsen Garcia told about 50 members of the United Teachers of Dade. “That is padding my resume. I was the salad girl.
“And here I am because I was a sixth grade teacher in Utah for a million years. And now I’m president…representing the men and women who do the world’s most important work.”
Defeating Scott is one way of standing up for schools and teachers, she said. The union plans to spend money and offer manpower to assist Crist.
But she also spent her first week on the job visiting teachers and listening to want they want and need. At the top her list is an issue Florida pioneered.
“The first thing we’re going to have to do is get rid of this toxic testing,” she said, “where you’re hooking a high stakes punishment to a standardized test score. ‘
“But if that’s all we do shame on us.”
The amount of school testing is a rising concern in Florida schools. Lee County schools recently voted to boycott state-mandated tests, before reversing the decision days later.
Eskelsen Garcia stopped in several classrooms at Allapattah Middle School, located in one of the nation’s poorest communities. In each she showed students a photo she took with President Obama last week.
What should I tell the president you need the next time I see him? she asked every class.
One student has a presidential-level request.
“Move our school to a better environment,” he said. “Like, Coconut Grove or something.”
“When I hear you say that, it’s like, we’d like to have those kinds of opportunity here,” Eskelsen Garcia said.
The moment stuck with Eskelsen Garcia. The student was unhappy with his neighborhood – but loved his school.
“Equity is every kid getting what every kid needs,” she said. “We think every public school should look as good as your best public school. That’s the standard we want every state to meet.”
Eskelsen Garcia takes over the union at a time when many members are fed up with both Republicans and Democrats.
They want the National Education Association to fight back against both parties for supporting the growing use – and consequences – of test results. They believe publicly-funded, but privately-run charter schools pushed by Democrats and Republican are undermining traditional public schools.
And they want someone to argue that, sometimes, improving schools requires spending more money.
It’s one reason the union is getting involved in Florida’s elections this year.
“What we’re looking for now are common sense people,” Eskelsen Garcia said, “who will look at the evidence of what does work and will listen and respect the voices of the people who know the names of those students.”
But Eskelsen Garcia disagrees with a vocal union contingent which opposes the Common Core math and language arts standards adopted by Florida and dozens of states. She even has a favorite.
“I looked at all the sixth-grade,” said the former sixth grade teacher, “and there was one that said ‘Listen to a persuasive speaker, summarize in your own words what that speaker said and the reason and the evidence they gave for their opinion. And I loved that standard.”
Eskelsen Garcia refused to accept there were limits to what the union could get done.
“There is never going to be a day,” she said, “when the National Education Association, or any of our affiliates, says ‘Well, yes this hurts kids but that’s just the world we have to live in.’ You will never, ever hear that from us.”