US & World

Southern California teachers lobby Congress for education dollars

Tahnya Nodar teaches second grade in El Segundo.
Tahnya Nodar teaches second grade in El Segundo.
Kitty Felde/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 1.0MB

When you say the words “Washington lobbyist” a particular picture comes to mind. Not all lobbyists have fancy offices on K Street. This trio of first-time lobbyists usually work out of classrooms in Southern California.

Don’t let anyone tell you lobbying isn’t hard work. Just ask Tahnya Nodar. "My feet are like ground hamburger going from capitol building to capitol building, from one side to the other to talk to the different Congress people and Senate people to get our message across."

Nodar teaches second grade in El Segundo. She and teachers from around the country came to Washington courtesy of the teachers union to lobby for $23 billion earmarked for education.

Eighth grade teacher Peter Boyd says it was confusing just to figure out how the money would be voted on. He says you meet with one staff person, "and they share, 'well, it’s part of the war financing bill,' and then the next person is like, 'no, we hear it’s being attached to the Gulf cleanup.' And so it’s kind of an elusive floating target. I think that’s how the game’s played. Let’s try to attach it to something that we think people are going to have a hard time saying no to, and obviously why the size of those bills become quite large."

The teachers say there’s a clear need for emergency money for education jobs. At Tahnya Nodar’s school, one in three teachers received a lay off notice. At Peter Boyd’s Santa Ana school, layoffs led to overcrowding – there are 42 kids in his classroom.

Clarissa Barragan, also from Santa Ana, no longer has a classroom. Instead, she’s working as a full time substitute teacher, earning about $100 a day. She says, "I have hopefully a voice, I have a reason for being here – to represent on behalf of other teachers like myself."

Barragan is the daughter of immigrant parents, the first in her family to attend college. She calls the lobbying experience “way more exciting” than she imagined. Everyone was friendly. "Obviously," she says, "they’re not going to put on a mean face for two teachers. But it’s very difficult when you hear no. And you want to hear yes so badly."

Peter Boyd says one of the “nos” came from their own congresswoman, Democrat Loretta Sanchez. "She was very candid," he says, "because at that point, it was attached to the war funding. She wasn’t going to support it because her position is we that shouldn’t be in Afghanistan and building schools for Afghanistan children when we’re neglecting our own schools at home."

Even the “nos” offered opportunity, says El Segundo’s Tahnya Nodar. Staffers and members of Congress alike were eager to hear stories from the classroom. "Some of them," Nodar says, wanted to hear "the personal experiences and how their policies affect people at the grassroots level. I think they really did listen and take to heart. But I don’t know if that’s going to change anything."

Eighth grade teacher Peter Boyd says the challenge in Washington is that there are so many competing interests. "My worthy cause – me trying to create a better environment for me and my students that I teach – is important to me and my students. Everyone recognizes the importance of it, but I’m sure if you’re in Louisiana right now, you’ve got another issue that’s very, very important to you and that you’re concerned about."

And in the end, he wonders if the trip made any difference. "I mean, is this how it works?" Boyd wonders if it's "just playing the game and creating the illusion that this is the way democracy works?"

But Boyd’s two colleagues Clarissa Barragan and Tahnya Nodar say they’ve learned an important lesson on this lobbying trip: speaking out to your elected officials matters. It’s a message all three say they’ll carry back to their classrooms in Southern California.