Nan Austin

Trump presidency teeming with teachable moments

Ilene Straus, vice chair of the State Board of Education, speaks about changes in school financing and requirements for community involvement and oversight at the California State PTA Legislation Conference on March 13, 2017, in Sacramento, CA.
Ilene Straus, vice chair of the State Board of Education, speaks about changes in school financing and requirements for community involvement and oversight at the California State PTA Legislation Conference on March 13, 2017, in Sacramento, CA.

While passions run high and perspectives run counter, there is one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree upon: We are all learning so much more about government.

What O.J. Simpson’s trial did for Americans’ understanding of of how courts work, Donald J. Trump’s presidency is now doing for the public’s grasp of democracy. The eras, the issues and the men could not be more different, but both brought a spotlight into hallowed spaces comfortably cocooned in tradition and filtered light.

Nonprofit advocates with the California State PTA, whose volunteers have lobbied for children’s issues since 1897, say they expect federal funding for family needs and public schools to fall here, and are girding to meet the challenges.

Never have civics lessons been more relevant and real time. How do we get a federal budget? Who in the government decides if a government official committed a crime? What are the hurdles that bill I love/hate has to pass to become law?

Compare the scouring Pres. Donald Trump’s budget sketch is getting to those of the George W. Bush administration. The second Bush went to war while slashing taxes, a fiscal contradiction eased by deftly tucking overseas defense spending into a supplement voted apart from the budget. Who was watching then?

Compare the scrutiny of education department policy changes under Secretary Betsy DeVos with the wholesale changes in federal oversight of education ushered in under the No Child Left Behind Act. Who was secretary then? Don’t feel bad if the name Rod Paige does not spring to mind, it was not on a daily news drip.

Yet for all the frenetic news coverage of each step of the governmental process and each leader’s every word, so much about how we view what happens depends on which news source our eyes glue to and which Facebook feeds roll in.

Fake news? Alternative facts? Walter Cronkite broadcast to many of the same ears, but how differently we listened.

To help the next generation sift the wheat from online chaff, there are two California bills moving forward essentially requiring a healthy skepticism of online content be taught in school. To help those and other key bills clear the legislative hurdles ahead, a group of PTA parents has created an app.

Click My Cause is maintained by the San Ramon Valley Council of PTAs, a collaboration of 34 school PTAs in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.

Nancy Krop worked to create the app, which sends users alerts when bills face a vote. With a couple of clicks, they can mail their representatives and everyone on a committee hearing their support for a bill, adding personal notes from their phone.

“People want to help. They really want to make a difference. They just don’t have an easy way to do that,” Krop said, explaining the free app to passers-by at the annual California State PTA Legislative Conference in Sacramento on March 13.

San Ramon area PTAs piloted the app last year, focused on two bills, and proved effective, Krop said. “California State PTA has 800,000 members. Now we’re opening the floodgates.”

This year the app is tracking two cyber-savvy bills and four others: AB 371 to help fight human trafficking; AB 37 to add media arts to state arts standards; AB 189 on service learning in high school, and AB 340, to require children’s Medi-Cal screenings to also look for signs of trauma.

AB 155, dubbed the Fake News Act of 2017 by author Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-LA. It was introduced Jan. 11 and awaits action by the Assembly Education Committee. The bill notes young people can be particularly gullible to fake news and advertising gimmicks and orders the state to incorporate what it calls civic online reasoning into English, math, history and science lessons. SB 203, by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, asks the state to research and districts to teach digital citizenship, Internet safety and media literacy.

The annual state PTA leg conference this month drew around 100 parents, grandparents and education advocates from around the state to listen to speakers, learn from each other and lobby their representatives on kid-focused concerns.

“I would say that we are getting more interest and questions now than we have had in the past. Parents are asking how they can have a voice in the issues being discussed both in Sacramento and Washington D.C.,” said Shayne Silva, California PTA director of legislation.

Vouchers, for example, are expected to take a chunk of federal funding away from programs California schools count on, Silva said, “So we need to be ready for that.”

In California, where one in three kindergarteners enrolled this year does not speak English, the rise in deportations is also a hot topic. Children born here fear the arrest and deportation of undocumented parents.

“There’s a need for every child to have access to education without fear or threats,” said Celia Jaffe, state PTA vice president of education, between speakers.

“Education funding is flattening out and that’s a concern,” she added, in a list that included wider parent involvement in school budgeting discussions, and looking down the road at an anticipated shift in federal demands under the Every Child Succeeds Act.

“California is sticking to its guns about having multiple measures,” Jaffe said, pointing to the California School Dashboard reports released last week.

The state is working to cement a system that works toward improvement over time, stressed speaker Ilene Straus, vice chair of the State Board of Education. The kid-focused funding, community-driven budgeting, and a revolution in ways of teaching all flow from that, she said. New frameworks are coming over the next few years in the arts, history, health and civic engagement.

“For teachers, the 21st century classroom looks very different,” Straus said. “They’re changing a lot, but they have a lot more changing to do.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin