With some big decisions looming in November, politics has certainly been in the air (and, of course, often in the mud, too) since the first caucuses in Iowa. Politics isn’t a stranger to the Gevirtz School, either. For instance alumna Jean Fuller (Education, Ph.D., ’89) is a California State Senator and the Senate Republican Leader after having served as the Superintendent for the Keppel Union School District, the largest K-8 school district in the state.
To explore the education-politics connection, the GGSE chose to interview Niki Sandoval (Education, Ph.D., ’07), Education Director of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and two-term member of the California Board of Education along with Pedro Paz (Education, Ph.D., ’08), program and evaluation manager for First 5 Santa Barbara County, who is the current President of the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education.
“Public service, in a voluntary or professional capacity, is a natural fit for educators,” Sandoval asserts. “Graduates of education programs have much to bring to public service at local, county, state, and federal levels. I think of the personal qualities of my favorite teachers – intellectual curiosity, inclusiveness, caring, and a passion for service. Effective leaders in the political arena should also demonstrate these qualities.”
Paz, on the other hand, was interested in politics even before he was interested in education. “One of the first people I ever wrote about was President John F. Kennedy, and when I was eight, I watched the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter on TV,” he recalls. “It was always on my mind, so much so that it drove me to be a political science major as an undergrad. Beyond that, when I was finishing my dissertation, I realized that much of what I advocated to change within my final chapter was about the need to change policies around teacher education. Education by its nature is political. Beyond the academic rationale of a public education, schools are expected to fulfill broad public roles, which to some include unifying a diverse population as well as preparing people for citizenship in a democratic society.”
Preparing doctoral candidates for politics instead of the professoriate is a more complicated matter. “Service learning opportunities guided by professionals in the field are invaluable. In my coursework at GGSE, attending school site council and school board meetings was required,” Sandoval points out. “This is an excellent practice that builds awareness of governance at the local level.”
Beyond taking graduate students to council and school board meetings, Paz hopes to see “education programs looking at increasing the involvement of policy makers in courses, if not having policy makers who are able to lead courses. Likewise, it would be helpful for programs to cover how research may or may not translate to practice. I believe that anyone who has graduated from a graduate school of education is cognizant that research does not perfectly translate to classroom practice, but even before teachers are asked to implement something in their classroom there are a few stops along the way, but policy at the local level can impact how well or badly this is done.”
Paz has a particular example in mind to show the ways research-practice-policy don’t always align. “I do not believe that anyone totally understood the impact that the implementation of the Common Core would have on schools,” he says. “These impacts have been within the areas of professional development, the curriculum, the ability of parents to support their children, the use of technology in the classroom, and how we generally prepare students to transition to higher education if that is their choice.”
Both Sandoval and Paz felt their time at the Gevirtz School helped provide some solid basis for their more political “careers.” Sandoval singled out the mentorship of now Emeritus Professor Russell Rumberger, who, among other appointments, served as the Vice Provost for Education Partnerships, University of California Office of the President. Sandoval claims, “The course materials and Dr. Rumberger's facilitation of our conversations prepared me for the responsibilities that come with State Board service.”
“Certainly, having a Ph.D. allows me to understand research issues, understand the areas of education that I studied,” Paz explains, “but it did not completely prepare me to understand budget issues, personnel, state laws around education, the process of making policy, and the many areas of education that arise due to new laws and how they will be implemented locally. There are so many areas in education, so what a Ph.D. does is allows you to be an expert in a very narrow field. The same applies to serving on a school board: There are just as many areas that a school board member must understand as there are research areas in the field of education.”