Interviewed by Len Feldman
Assembly Member Susan Bonilla is one of a growing number of educators who serve in the California Legislature. A former English teacher in Mt. Diablo, she chairs the Assembly Select Committee on Increasing the Integration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) in Education in California K-14 schools. She authored AB 484, the CTA-backed measure that suspended the STAR exam so that the state could bring its student assessment system in line with the new Common Core State Standards.
Bonilla represents Assembly District 14, which includes portions of Contra Costa and Solano counties.
What did you do before becoming a lawmaker?
My real job is being a teacher. Teaching is the career that best reflects my passion and values, and it continues to be relevant to my work in Sacramento. I was teaching English, Macbeth to be precise, in the Mount Diablo School District, when I was first elected to Concord City Council in a surprise grassroots victory. Four years later, I moved to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and enjoyed the opportunity to work on strengthening the safety net for many of the same families I had served in the classroom.
What led you to run for office?
My first reaction to jumping into politics, even at the local level, was similar to most people. Why would I ever consider the hassle, frustration and gridlock to be worth the exposure and impacts on myself and my family? But it has been a fulfilling choice, as I can now help shape statewide education policy from the unique perspective of a teacher who is passionate about education.
What steps should the Legislature take to help schools succeed?
While many people focus on the percentage of the state budget that goes to fund education and feel that 50 percent is a huge share, the reality is we have been disinvesting in education over the last 40 years as measured by the percentage of personal income spent on schools, shrinking from 5.6 percent 40 years ago to 3.5 percent today. The Legislature needs to lead on increasing funds for education and advocate for a lower voter threshold for local parcel taxes to be passed for education.
As chair of the Assembly Budget Committee on Education Finance, I created the impetus for an improved compromise to be reached on the Local Control Funding Formula. We need to continue to work on successful implementation of the formula and accountability measures. Given the importance of education for California's success, teachers are significant stakeholders and will make the difference on the issue of increasing funding. The passage of Proposition 30 demonstrated the leadership of a teacher-led initiative that has stabilized California's finances for the next several years. We need your help and determination again to get our state priorities sorted out.
What are your hopes for public education?
Let’s refocus the discussion about education in our state. We have heard enough criticism and have seen the ineffectiveness of short-sighted reform efforts. Now is the time for experienced educators to lead with proven solutions and demonstrate how increased resources can help our students become successful. Communities need to hear the voices of their teachers restoring hope and confidence in public education. We need to continue preparing our students and schools for today’s fast-paced and dynamic job market. Our students deserve this opportunity to be challenged by standards that require analytical thinking.
Last year, I worked with the governor and helped secure $1.25 billion in funding for implementing Common Core State Standards. The infusion of this one-time funding for professional development and technology upgrades means we are positioned to transition to a successful 21st century model of education and provide educators with the tools to advance instruction and integrate technology into the learning environment. That is why I authored AB 484 this year — one of the most important and revolutionary changes to education policy. With this new law, our schools can move away from outdated STAR tests and prepare students and teachers for better assessments that reflect the real-world knowledge needed for young people to succeed in college and careers.
What advice would you give educators about working with the legislators?
As lawmakers, we must hear from teachers and understand their concerns and recommendations to improve our schools. I encourage teachers to meet with their state representatives at the Capitol and in their districts, and share feedback of what they are experiencing in the classrooms. Recently I was invited to attend Mount Diablo Education Association's teacher representative meeting. It was valuable to get direct feedback and suggestions from teachers on AB 484, including ideas for future legislation.
Educate your legislators and hold them accountable. Let's see if we can pass the test!
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