Assembly Member Shirley Weber
Shirley Weber’s first bill for the 2014 session, CTA-co-sponsored AB 1444, would make kindergarten mandatory for all youngsters. Education has always been important to Weber, a daughter of sharecroppers from Hope, Arkansas. She taught at CSU Los Angeles and Los Angeles City College, and at age 23 became one of San Diego State University’s youngest professors.
Weber was elected in November 2012 to represent California's 79th Assembly District, which includes Chula Vista, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, National City and San Diego.
What did you do before become a lawmaker?
For over 40 years I was a faculty member and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at San Diego State University. My parents instilled in me the value of education. By 26, I had obtained a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. and only owed about $1,250 — something almost unheard of today. When my two children were in the San Diego Unified School District, I ran for the school board, where I served two terms, including a stint as school board president.
What led you to run for office?
I had a conversation with [Assembly Speaker-elect] Toni Atkins, who reminded me that the number of women in the Legislature was declining, and she urged me to run. I knew there were some things in education policy, in workforce development, and in the lives of my students I wouldn’t be able to affect unless policy changed at the state level.
Who was the teacher who had the greatest impact on you?
All of my teachers had a deep and abiding commitment to the kids in the low-income housing projects because they understood what our challenges were, including race and poverty. When I got to eighth grade, I had an English teacher, Mrs. Williams, who discovered that we had not been adequately prepared for eighth-grade English. She was determined that we were going to be prepared for the ninth grade, so we worked extremely hard that year. She knew we could do it, and we did.
What steps should the Legislature take to help schools succeed? Any advice for teachers?
We’ve taken a big step by restoring some local control of funding. But we need to remain vigilant that the funds set aside specifically to help the neediest students — English learners, low-income students and those in foster care — are spent as intended.
We also need to make early childhood education an actual priority and invest in it. CTA co-sponsored legislation that I am authoring jointly with the Assembly Education chair, Joan Buchanan, which would make kindergarten mandatory for every child in California. This would ensure that even if children are not able to participate in preschool or other early childhood programs, they would at least have the preparation that kindergarten provides before starting elementary school.
What are your hopes or goals for public education?
I see education as an instrument for social mobility. For K-12, that means making sure not only that we have high expectations and support our talented and dedicated teachers, but that there are resources directed to students who need extra help to mitigate effects of poverty, cultural or language barriers, or a chaotic home life on their academic progress.
And we need to ensure college graduates are not saddled with so much student loan debt that it impedes their social mobility. I believe we need to return to a commitment to affordable and accessible quality higher education for every Californian who wants to attend.
What advice would you give educators about working with the legislators?
A good presentation and handout materials that reinforce the information discussed are especially helpful. This is probably second nature to teachers. Frequent contacts between legislators and teachers from their districts are important to relationship building and understanding the issues important to educators on the ground.
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