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This Ex-Principal Hopes to Be the Next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

thumbnail_Jamaal Bowman .jpg

Is a future darling of the progressive movement about to move from the principal's office to Capitol Hill? Jamaal Bowman hopes so. 

The veteran principal of a New York City public school recently left the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School to run full-time against Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., in the Democratic primary. Bowman is running to Engel's left in an attempt to unseat the veteran Democrat, who was first elected to Congress in 1988.

He's publicly embraced the idea that he could pick up the mantle of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who scored a huge upset by unseating former Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley in the 2018 Democratic primary and has become one of the most prominent progressive politicians in the country. He thinks American public schools and the disadvantaged students in them are victims of "educational apartheid." He has a plan for a "New Deal for Education." And he has some blunt thoughts about federal lawmakers' shortcomings when they think about public schools. 

We spoke with him by phone about those and other issues on Wednesday. 

On how his career as a principal prepared him to serve in Congress, and whether he's been inspired by the #RedForEd movement:

Asked how his work has made him a good fit for federal office, Bowman said that his career in schools, indeed any career in education, is characterized by service to others. He also highlighted his work as a teacher and guidance counselor in New York City before founding the Cornerstone school, which Bowman said focuses on project-based learning and collaborative approaches, in 2009. 

What led him to start the school, he stressed, is the "inequity and oppression" he witnessed in Gotham schools. And that demonstrates his ability, Bowman said, not just to identify something "deplorable" but to try to change it. The motivation for his decision to start the school also drives how the school teaches its students and what it tries to prepare them to do, he said.

"It's a school rooted in a curriculum and a philosophy that believes that students have the power of transformative change within them," Bowman said. 

More generally, Bowman said, "Everyone who works in education is a leader to some extent." And he said he's been inspired by teachers spurred to run by the #RedForEd movement who have not just won election but have shown their willingness to "fight for benefits, [fight] for increased funding for their students."

A list of the organizations that employ or are othewise formally affiliated with the biggest donors to Bowman's campaign can be found here, based on information compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. (Note that the organizations themselves did not donate.) They include the New York City Department of Education, Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee, and Open Philanthropy, a group funded by a co-founder of Facebook. 

On standardized testing, the opt-out movement, and just how much his school cares about exams: 

Bowman's stances on educational issues have previously drawn attention in New York City, and not always in admiration. Twice in 2015, the New York Post sharply criticized Bowman for his opposition to standardized testing, and specifically for his comments on his (deleted) blog that such tests fit on a continuum of harm to the black community that included slavery, Jim Crow, and crack cocaine. They also dinged him for criticizing tests even though his school advertised its performance on them and attention to them during the school year. 

When asked about the Post's reporting on his stance, Bowman dismissed it and said the growth in test scores cited by the paper came as a result of his school's work, but was not the focus of it. 

"Just because my school does well on standardized tests does not mean I can't be critical of the tests," Bowman argued, adding that when he prioritizes what he students spend time on, "We need to prepare them for a political system that is rigged, and corrupt, and racist, and classist, so they can challenge that system and change that system."

The most recent data from the New York City Department of Education showed that at Cornerstone, 37 percent of students met the standard on state English exams, roughly the same as other schools in the district (a subdivision of New York City schools) but below the citywide average of 47 percent. In math, 25 percent of students met the standard, compared to 30 percent in the district and 41 percent in the city. And the school got a rating of "fair" on the measure of student growth at the school for both state English and math tests. 

Bowman also said he's been a strong supporter of the opt-out movement, in which parents declined to let their children take those state exams. A national movmeent, opt-out has been relatively strong in New York state, although Bowman stressed that he's barred from explicitly telling students that they should not take the exams. According to a Chalkbeat database compiled for the 2017-18 school year, 2.3 percent of students at Cornerstone's middle school declined to take the state English test, while 8.3 percent did the same for the math test; citywide, 4.4 percent of students opted out of at least one of the exams.

On whether he's trying to follow in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's footsteps, and what he'd do differently from her:

Bowman's campaign highlighted recent comments made on News12, a New York TV channel, that he could be the "next AOC." In our interview, he said he has to win his race first in order to truly emulate her. But he didn't shy away from the comparison, and said she had inspired him in a way he didn't think it be possible for a politician to do. In fact, he didn't offer up any response to our question of whether he disagreed with her in any way. 

"She has broken through the glass ceiling of how we engage with and think about politics in this nation. She is brilliant. She is fearless. She speaks truth to power. She's brought in diverse people, younger people," Bowman said of Ocasio-Cortez. "I didn't see a space for me to talk about the things I really believe in until AOC and 'The Squad' started having these conversations." ("The Squad" refers to first-term Democratic members of Congress who are outspoken progressives, including Ocaso-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.) 

We also asked him where he thinks his Democratic opponent Engel has done a good job representing his district in Congress. Bowman acknowledged that Engel has represented "certain constituents" well, but that the veteran Democrat has ignored issues like affordable housing for too long at the expense of many disadvantaged residents of color in the district.

Engel, for his part, has touted his support for increased federal education funding, and Title I aid specifically, for the Bronx and Westchester County schools in his district. He's also highlighted his support for Head Start.

On what he would say to a New York City parent who wants to enroll his or her child in a charter school:

Bowman has made it clear that he doesn't like charter schools. Like other candidates for federal office, he wants to halt the use of federal money for the expansion of charters. But what about a parent in the Bronx or Brooklyn who isn't thrilled with the local public school and wants the same option to go to a charter school that thousands of other Big Apple families have? 

First and foremost, Bowman said, he would say the decision is ultimately theirs to make. But he went on to launch a broad attack on charter schools, calling them part of a "propaganda machine" that weakens unions to the benefit of private interests. And he called the supposed academic supremacy of charter schools a "myth." 

Ideally, Bowman said, he would be able to convince parents that their interest in education should be redirected towards lobbying local and state officials to better support the traditional public schools that already exist in the community, rather than charter schools. 

"To that parent, I would say, well, what if your school were fully funded? What if the teachers in that school and the leaders in that school had the resources to fully meet the needs of your child?" Bowman said. 

Like two Democratic presidential candidates—Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts—he wants to ban for-profit operators from managing charter schools. Mmany Democrats take a similar line, although it's hard to see the federal government mandating such a policy for states, which set their own charter laws and regulations. He also wants a ban on virtual charter schools. 

On his "New Deal for Education" and how he thinks it differs from plans from Sanders andWarren:

It's easy to spot similarities between what Bowman's plan calls for in K-12 and what other presidential candidates want. Bowman wants to quadruple annual Title I funding, like Warren (Bowman cites a figure of $14 billion for annual Title I aid, but the actual figure is roughly $16 billion), and a $60,000 minimum salary for teachers, like Sanders. Other parts stand out, like his pledge to incentivize schools to cap class sizes at 20 students, and pushing states to enter into a federally backed pilot to create new assessments.

So we asked him how his education platform and philosophy standsout from others. 

Bowman singled out his desire for more progressive pedogagy to be taught in schools. He said that educational philosophies such as Reggio Emilia and Montessori need to be incorporated more broadly into the public K-12 system. (One estimate is that roughly nine out of 10 schools using Montessori are private schools.) He envisions a system that fosters collaboration and not "rugged individualism" and competition in schools that he says has typically disadvantaged students of color. Bowman also wants schools to prepare students for the "new industries that will come into alignment with the Green New Deal." (That's a reference to a proposal in Congress from Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that focuses on climate change and economic inequality through a new economic blueprint.) 

And the former principal also wants schools to do a better job "reckoning with history" and highlighting how the nation, he says, was built on "Native American genocide, disenfranchisement of women, and slavery." 

"I did not learn about my history and culture at school," Bowman said. 

These sorts of teaching strategies and decisions about curriculum are typically addressed at the state and local level. 

On misperceptions federal officials have about schools

Bowman gave a long, pained laugh when we asked him about this issue, then said, "They don't understand children. They don't understand the miracles that teachers and school leaders make every day in dire circustmances." 

More specifically, he said that poilcymakers often don't understand how their decisions can create long-lasting and negative ripple effects in communities like his. Not surprisingly, he singled out the No Child Left Behind Act and its requirements for standardized testing as a particularly excruciating example of how detached powerful officials are from schools; Bowman criticized NCLB for being "a catchphrase and a traumatic policy." 

We asked him what he told Cornerstone middle school when he left to run for Congress full time. He said his message was simple: "I love you. And I will always love you." 

Photo courtesy of Jamaal Bowman's congressional campaign


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