The post below is by guest blogger, Kira Orange Jones.
I was born a democrat to my mother who was a schoolteacher and my father who worked as social worker, both in New York City. My grandfather served as a janitor for parks and recreation his entire life. Grandma was a shop stewardess and delegate for one of the first all-women labor unions representing garment workers in the South Bronx.
Being a Democrat wasn’t a choice in our family. It’s as permanent a part of my identity as my brown eyes. It’s also as core as my professional identity of an educator. I work to improve educational outcomes for children from the lens of a Democrat and an educator. This is why I belong to the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).
I remember wearing Jessie Jackson buttons as a 7 year-old, holding my mother’s hand as we stood in line at 6 a.m. to get on a public bus to head downtown to vote in the Democratic primary for the presidential election. When I asked my mother why we were doing this instead of the numerous places my young mind could think of, she replied, “Because we are proud democrats and this is our party.”
For my entire life, I’ve understood that at its core, the Democratic Party is known for picking up the mantle for citizens who often can’t represent themselves. I taught in an under-resourced school where my students were extraordinary, full of potential and so capable, but the institution they relied upon did not properly serve them or the generations before. The high school my students were zoned for had a 15 percent graduation rate. The college-going rate was half of that. I then started to find school options in the charter, traditional and private sectors because my students deserved quality alternatives.
To be a proud Democrat is to change the conditions that keep people from progressing and to fight for children who have less than they deserve.
My classroom teaching experience shaped my perspective on what is needed in education. I was in my second year of teaching in Louisiana when our statewide accountability system, which included monitoring, began to scale. For the first time, I was observed and given feedback. As a result, my students, their families and I received data that let us know how my students were performing. I became a better teacher because of this.
After that experience, I began to understand how Democrats can exact change through policy. I started building upon my classroom experience. When I became Teach for America’s executive director in New Orleans, I worked to support effective teachers in the classroom. I got more involved in the reform efforts in New Orleans and learned that sustaining these efforts required a seat the policy table. That’s why I ran for a seat on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
I developed positions and strategies that strive for active public engagement, good governance, strong accountability, effective and loving teachers, as well as ways we can increase quality choices for all families.
Voters elected me on this platform, but I found it bewildering that critics in my first term charged my beliefs as being Republican. While I served during Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure, the only thing I had in common with Jindal is an agreement over certain aspects of an education agenda. I work with Republicans and other groups who put students first. Nonetheless, Democrats have to be able to say they can be for things like good governance, accountability and choice without being deemed outsiders to our own party.
While I proudly stand for certain aspects of school reform, I also stand alongside polices that seek to improve criminal justice, housing and health care systems – unapologetically democratic issues. Inequities in education follow inequities in the rest of our lives. Democrats are uniquely positioned to be out front on reforming education because we can make connections to other policies that seek to improve children’s lives.
Democrats for Education Reform is giving democratic education leaders who are working for reforms the support and cover needed to serve children well. We can’t be confused for being anything other than a Democrat when we take the necessary steps to reform education.
DFER opened nationally in 2008 when President Barak Obama was named the party’s nominee. Like many reformers, Obama’s beliefs on education breaks from the typical positions of the Democratic Party, which often aligns with those of the teacher unions. DFER, like President Obama, champions school choice, innovation, accountability, teacher effectiveness and pathways for teacher leaders. Just like I wore, Jessie Jackson buttons, I wear Obama’s policies on my sleeve.
This is why I proudly call myself a “DFER.”
Seeking change for the better is progressive. I don’t exclude unions as an institution that needs serious improvement. Unions need to evolve to better represent the ideals that make all of us Democrats.
More and more Democrats in the state and around the country are calling themselves DFERs. And who knows – maybe one day we will have a governor in Louisiana who will call himself or herself a DFER, too.
It’s imperative that we ensure that as a party, Democrats return to the ideals that all children can achieve at high levels and we should stop at nothing to ensure they have systems to make that happen.
Kira Orange Jones holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University, a M.Ed. in School Leadership from Harvard University, and is a second term elected member of the statewide education policy making board, the Louisiana Board of Elementary & Secondary Education, representing New Orleans and five other parishes. Kira also sits on the national leadership committee of EdLoc (Education Leaders of Color), an organization comprised of leaders of color committed to ‘third way’ values in education and sits on the New Orleans advisory board of Education Pioneers. Most recently, Kira was recognized by Louisiana Life Magazine as a Louisianan of the Year and in 2015 was named to Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.