The Seattle P-I’s Joel Connelly was happy just to be out of the house after weeks recuperating from hip replacement surgery… but he seemed especially pleased to be at Garfield High School Saturday afternoon, as Senators Maria Cantwell and Barak Obama prepared to speak in the jam-packed gymnasium. “This is a late New Hampshire primary crowd,” he told me, apparently remarking on both the size and the enthusiasm of the audience.
At this point in his long career I think it is fair to describe Connelly as a touch jaded, having comfortably settled into his role as the curmudgeonly deacon of Seattle’s political press corps. So while I could feel the excitement in the air… what do I know? I came away impressed that Connelly was impressed.
No doubt, Obama is a political superstar, and he draws superstar sized crowds, (the Seattle Times estimated the standing-room-only audience at 1,500,) but some of his aura seemed to rub off on Cantwell yesterday, who drew loud applause and a standing ovation from a very friendly crowd.
The two Senators had come to talk about education, and Garfield was the perfect setting. Cantwell, in her more wonkish, policy-focused fashion struck an “education = opportunity” theme, using her own life story as an example of how government programs can positively impact individual lives. Cantwell was the first in her working-class family to go to college, but couldn’t have done it without the support of federal Pell grants.
Obama for his part hit on some larger themes, admitting that there is a “values component” to education, that it’s not just a function of money and government. Parents have to be involved in their children’s education, he exhorted the crowd, they have to turn off the TV set and help their kids with their homework.
But it is also important that government fulfill its promises, he told the audience… that our schools need both more reform and more money. “Every child is special…” Obama poignantly stated, “but our budgets do not reflect that.”
In fact, I have long been disgusted at our decades-old debate over education reform, for as the recipient of an excellent public education myself, I can bluntly tell you that there is no mystery as to what makes a good public school good. Yes, there are many factors, but way above all others are money and parental involvement… and because of the unjust way we finance education, the two tend to go hand in hand.
The best schools are generally those with the best funding and the most family and community participation. Natural ability aside, the best students are generally those whose parents are most involved in their children’s education. Really… no education reform is worth a damn if you don’t properly fund it and the kids do not receive the support they need at home and in the classroom.
The fact is, we know how to make public schools better — there are good public schools all around us. Smaller class size, special needs tutoring, enrichment programs like art, music, physical education, foreign languages… all of these things cost money. We just don’t want to spend this kind of money educating other people’s children.
And the fact is, due to their own financial or personal circumstances — or due to their own crappy education — there are many parents who simply lack the time, the resources, the skill sets, or yes, the values to help their kids succeed academically. These are the families who need the most intervention and counseling… these are the kids who cost the most to educate… and again, we as a society simply refuse to pay for it.
“The basic notion that we have a mutual obligation to each other has been lost,” Obama lamented. And until we restore that notion, I personally don’t think we have a snowball’s chance of truly reforming public education.
Garfield High was not only the perfect place for the Senators to talk about education… as the symbolic center of Seattle’s black community it was also the perfect place to showcase Cantwell’s support from our nation’s highest profile black elected official, as well as local community leaders themselves.
In yesterday’s Seattle P-I, columnist Robert Jamieson criticized Cantwell’s appearance as political opportunism.
Cantwell’s rare visit to the community feels like a slap in the face to Aaron Dixon, who just announced that he would run against her as a Green Party candidate.
But it was Jamieson whose face got slapped, and by none other than longtime Mount Zion Baptist Church minister and Seattle icon, the Rev. Samuel McKinney. Rev. McKinney made a point of refuting Jamieson’s criticism, insisting that Cantwell was no stranger to the black community, and highlighting the work she’s done on its behalf. In a ringing endorsement of Cantwell’s reelection, McKinney instructed the crowd: “When you are ahead, you don’t change.”
All in all, it was a great program. From the teen rapper who warmed up the crowd, to the presenters introducing educational programs that have had an impact on the community, to the featured speakers themselves… it was an entertaining and informative afternoon.
Having never been there myself, I took Connelly’s word that the event had the feel of a New Hampshire primary, and I walked away wondering if in the current political climate there was any national GOP figure who could generate a similar crowd for Mike McGavick?
Perhaps President Bush could do it… and I certainly hope he comes and tries. For while Obama may only be a first term senator, I’d much rather have his enthusiastic endorsement than that of a lame duck president with 33% approval ratings.