by Len Feldman
Assembly Member Joan Buchanan
Joan Buchanan chairs the Assembly Education Committee. Since 2008 she has represented the 16th Assembly District, which includes portions of Alameda and Contra Costa counties and the communities of Alamo, Danville, Dublin, Lafayette, Livermore, Moraga, Orinda, Pleasanton, San Ramon and Walnut Creek.
Who was the teacher who had the greatest impact on you?
This is the toughest question, because I had many great teachers. Mrs. Boccaleoni, my eighth-grade algebra teacher, conveyed a deep understanding of algebraic principles, and I loved her class. Since most math, including calculus, requires a strong foundation in algebra, I credit her with my success in future classes.
What did you do before you became a lawmaker?
I was a community activist, helping expand school-age child care, serving in leadership positions in PTA, coaching youth sports, and raising five children as a single mom. I served on the San Ramon Valley Unified School District board for 18 years. In the private sector, I worked for Delta Dental, first as the Actuarial Division director developing rating formulas and the corporate budget, and later as the Commercial Operations Division director, bringing total quality management practices to streamline operations and develop a quality assurance program.
What led you to run for office?
In 1990 our teachers were on strike. The district was deficit-spending and approaching bankruptcy. Curriculum was developed by board-appointed community members, not teachers or administrators. R-rated movies were banned, and schools were not allowed to implement the DARE [antidrug] program. We desperately needed new leadership, and I believed I could make a difference, so I ran for school board. In 2008, when the Assembly seat was open in my district, I was ready for a new challenge and decided to run.
What steps should the Legislature take to help schools succeed?
For starters, let’s acknowledge that we cannot legislate our way to success. We’ve tried that over and over, with little success. We cannot test our way to success. In addition to paying salaries that will allow us to attract the best and brightest to the profession, here is what I would do.
First, I’d stop blaming teachers and focus on leadership. I’ve never seen a great school without a great principal or a great district without a great superintendent. I think the bench is thin in this area.
Second, I would increase capacity of our teachers by providing more time for articulation, sharing best practices and targeted in-service.
Third, I would fund preschool for all students. Students who start behind, finish behind.
Any advice for education advocates?
Meet regularly with your representatives in their district offices. Tell them about the good things that are happening in your schools — their schools — and share your priorities on local issues as well as state legislation. Get to know them. Then, when they are advocating for or against a bill, it is much easier to contact them and ask for support.
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