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LA education activist Yolie Flores on schools, politics, and why she’s running for Congress

Conor Williams | March 28, 2017

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(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

Yolie Flores is one of 24 candidates who will compete in the April 4 special primary election for the 34th Congressional District seat which includes downtown LA, Koreatown and the city’s northeast region. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes, a runoff election will be held on June 6. 

When longtime representative Xavier Becerra was nominated in December to serve as California’s attorney general (he was confirmed in January), it set off a political scramble in his district, California’s 34th. Labor organizers, career political operatives, and a host of others announced their intentions to run.

For education watchers, one candidate is particularly interesting. Yolie Flores is a longtime education activist, a former Los Angeles Unified School Board member, and a current senior fellow at the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. She sat down with The 74 to discuss how her convictions about education drive her politics.

The interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

How’s the race so far? Why did you decide to run?

A number of reasons. One, and the most important, is my passion and conviction around more needing to be done in this nation for children and families. Better policies, greater investments, higher priority, especially for the most vulnerable kids and families. I think that we’ve made a lot of progress in 50 years, whether it’s with Head Start, and WIC, and home visiting, and certainly in the last eight years, lots more attention to the early years. But as a nation, I think we fall short on really prioritizing children and families. For me, this is about investing in human capital. It’s the most important thing we can do for our economy and national security, and I don’t think we do that enough.

Obviously, with this administration, I’m concerned that the gains we’ve made in the past 50 years are going to be lost. We already see the writing on the wall, and so, to have the opportunity to be a stronger, louder voice for kids, protect as much as we can, but also take the long view, and be a leader in Congress that can move the nation to a higher prioritization of children and families, would be a phenomenal opportunity.

And secondly, my congressman is stepping down, and the opportunity became available at the most important time in history. With the kind of calling and commitment and conviction that I just described, it just felt to me like what I needed to do. Having this opportunity, I couldn’t not do it.

And then, I want to build on my 30-year history of being an advocate and a supporter for what’s right for children, what’s right for families, especially the most vulnerable.

It’s telling that you’ve made references only to children and families. You’ve said nothing about Iraq, about tax cuts, about the EPA — about the things politicians usually talk about. Your résumé stands out in politics, where education isn’t always a top-line issue and educational experience isn’t particularly common. Why have you made it a professional focus?

It’s a multiple-reason answer. One is, as a social worker, I understand that the well-being of kids and families translates into the well-being of communities, which translates into the well-being of the nation. If we don’t invest in the human potential of people starting at the earliest years, we will not be the democracy and cannot be the democracy that we say that we want to be. It’s the basis of, like I said, a strong economy, the kind of national security that we need to have in the times that we are in. It’s the basis for everything. A clean environment, global influence, sound policy related to infrastructure. I happen to have the background and understanding that that’s where it all starts.

I do oftentimes need to remind people that I will lead comprehensively on all the issues: immigration, health care, infrastructure, jobs, jobs, jobs! I know that serving in Congress requires all of that, and I’m prepared to be a learner on these that I’m not as familiar with, but I will always come at the job in Congress with a lens on children and families, because I believe — and I think I’m right — that that’s where it starts.

One thing that makes education unique: Everyone argues about it through a personal lens. Some people think as former students, they’re thinking as parents, or as teachers, taxpayers, employers, or researchers. How does your educational experience inform your work?

I’m a product of public K-12 education. I’m also a product of bilingual education and being an English learner. I am, like so many kids that I’m talking about, in terms of parents who never went beyond a third- and sixth-grade education, from an immigrant experience, not speaking the language, struggling to make ends meet. For me, public education clearly was my way out of poverty, and it is the pathway to helping any child achieve their American dream.

I really dedicate my success to the teachers that I had, who believed in me, who had high expectations for me, who knew how to inspire me — along with my parents. I come at public education with, it’s not just the school and the teacher, but it’s also your family, and your parents in particular. So my lens is the powerful relationship and connection between families and schools. The role that parents play as their children’s first and most important teacher, and then the handoff to either Head Start or preschool and then the handoff to K-12, with parents always being involved, and being part, being co-creators of good educational outcomes for kids. But schools have to be, and teachers in particular have to be, supported and prepared to inspire and believe in all kids, and I happen to have had that.

But I also know that I didn’t go to the best schools. So even though I had a handful of great teachers, I was not in a great educational system — LA Unified. So it took more from me — I was severely underprepared to go to college. And I had to work really hard to get to where other students were that had been better prepared.
Even though I was an “A” student, and I had a handful of great teachers who put me on the path to go to college, I also know that there was significant lacking in my educational quality. So when I was on the school board, I really fought hard for focusing on quality, for ensuring that kids had the most effective, strong teachers, and making sure that parents — so that we had a robust parent relationship, so that we could see better outcomes for kids and families.

That’s my personal experience with public education. I believe in it. I think it’s an important thing that, with the Trump administration, we’re going to have to fight hard to protect, because it’s moving in a very dangerous direction toward privatization and vouchers. I will fight hard against that. I don’t think that is good for a democracy.

You’ve worked throughout the field of education and in ways and places that are pretty rare for a congressional candidate. What do you believe are the three most important things the country needs to do today to improve equity and opportunity for all kids?

First and foremost: greater investment earlier for children. We’ve got research and science up the wazoo about what really matters for better educational outcomes and life outcomes — and that’s better, stronger investment in the early years. Even with the brain science and the neuroscience that we’re all familiar with, it’s not yet how we make the policies. It’s not where we’re making our investment. We do have the data, we do have the research, we have advocates that understand this and have been pushing this, but it’s not yet penetrated into the highest levels of government in terms of investment.

So, first and foremost, it’s making sure that our investments start much earlier, and that those investments begin with parents. There was a time in which advocates for children focused just on children and we thought we were going to save children, and we had lots of work around children’s advocacy, a big movement. We’ve realized as a field that has delivered very little for us. Just focusing on the child is insufficient. This is very important: We have to support parents, and we have to support families, and we have to start earlier.

Second is, we know that what makes strong and stable families are a number of things, especially jobs, their economic well-being, and their health. We all know that the [Affordable Care Act] is on the chopping block, and we don’t know what the heck is going to happen with that, but in addition to starting earlier and focusing on families, we have to focus on making sure that families have what they need for them to be successful, and that’s jobs, that’s housing, and that’s health care.

Third is to really lift up what needs to happen in pre–K-12. Even though there’s a lot more devolution now to the states, I do think that the federal government will have to continue to play a role to ensure equity and to think differently and help states think differently about the system of public education. It’s still a mess. It still has a long way to go. We want to encourage states to innovate and to lift up kids state by state, but I think there’s an important role for the federal government to play around innovation, around better applying the research and the science. There’s still so much to do to innovate and move public education into the 21st century, [like] the stronger, more intentional integration of pre-K and K-12, which, as you know, have been two worlds. We’ve got to have a more seamless system. I love the P-3 approach.

Who are some of your guiding lights on education? Whose work do you read to spark your thinking?

I’ve been reading Ruby Takanishi’s book First Things First, so this is where I’m getting the added inspiration for investing early. Her book really makes the case, in probably the strongest way I’ve read in a long time, for the importance of starting early.

I met Lee Schorr when I was a Casey [Foundation] fellow 20 years ago. She continues to do really phenomenal work around greater supports for families. It’s not specific to education, but I’ve been pulling out her work — Common Purpose was one of her books. She writes about the supports for families in sort of the way that Robert Putnam wrote recently on also putting kids first (in Our Kids).

Paul Tough’s book from five or six years ago, I like how he really focuses on results and outcomes for kids. He also talks about some things that I don’t necessarily gravitate toward, even though I understand it, maybe his little bit of overemphasis on grit. And grit is important, but if you don’t have the conditions for kids to succeed, grit will only get you so far. But I love his book’s strong focus on results.

I think that in K-12 education, we tend to get stuck in the polarizing politics of K-12 and less around getting to results. This is what I would always really push on as a school board member: What is in the best interests of children? What is it that we know works and that will get us, for example, to make sure that more kids are proficient readers by the end of third grade?

That’s what should be driving us: the research and the data that tell us if we’re moving in the right direction and whether we have the right interventions and supports.

Mark Friedman’s book Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough. That really speaks to my concern that we don’t make decisions based on what will get us the best results for kids, rather than political agendas. I’m interested in seeing and moving toward what it is that will get us results for kids and families.

Today’s schools are more diverse than the last decade’s schools. The next decade’s schools will be even more diverse. You don’t change expectations because the color or the home languages of students change. But what should be changing in our approach to education, and what should be staying the same?

I think the expectations have not been the same, actually. I think we’ve had high expectations for high-income and middle-class kids, who are generally not kids of color. So I think what has to change is our belief that all kids can learn. I think that that is sorely missing across all sectors, but especially in education. If you’re poor, black, or brown, or even if you’re poor and white in Appalachia, we don’t really believe that you are smart enough, capable enough, that you can succeed. So for me, what has to change is our belief and the expectation that all children can learn and succeed. The only thing getting in the way is whether we’re willing to invest in these children. By invest, I mean not only having the belief, but understanding their background, understanding the challenges that get in the way of their ability to succeed, and then a commitment to addressing those barriers and challenges.

So for me, what has to change is our belief and the expectation that all children can learn and succeed. The only thing getting in the way is whether we’re willing to invest in these children. By invest, I mean not only having the belief, but understanding their background, understanding the challenges that get in the way of their ability to succeed, and then a commitment to addressing those barriers and challenges.

Second is a real investment in what it takes to have quality education. We so underinvest in public education, starting from how we pay teachers, which continues to be a national shame. If we really believe that education is the gateway out of poverty and it’s the most important thing for a strong economy and a strong nation, then just like we invest in national security, we ought to invest in education: teachers, professional development, adequate facilities, adequate resources. And we just simply don’t. Every school district in this nation has suffered deep budget cuts because of the last recession, and no district, I think, has recovered from that, nor have we seen significant gains in per-pupil spending for all children.

So we have a long way to go as a nation to really walk the walk on our belief in public education for all kids. And it is a more diverse nation. We have more kids that speak other languages, that come from other nations, and we need to come to grips with that is who America is, and will be, and in order for those kids to succeed, we need to meet their needs and better understand their needs from the moment they’re born to the time that they get through K-12 education and beyond — because we also have to consider higher ed!

What do you make of the gulf between older, whiter voters and the young, increasingly nonwhite children in our schools? How do we solve the politics that come out of that?

I am very worried, very concerned, very upset. It calls for us who are feeling that way to step up, to better coalesce, to find ways to find common ground, especially for those voters who felt themselves left behind and not cared for in terms of their own well-being in this country. What I would like to see, and what my commitment is, is to pay greater attention to those families in areas where there was a lot of concern about their own economic well-being, their own ability to progress in a way that we had promised every person in America, that from one generation to the next, you would be better off.

We’ve got to learn to be a more cohesive America that pays attention to all the needs of the people of this nation. Of course, for all the right reasons, we were focused on urban communities. There’s still a lot to do. There’s a lot of racial inequity and bias, and we can’t not address that. But we also can’t not address the needs of, say, white rural families, because the needs are exactly the same. They are no different. It’s about jobs, it’s about housing, it’s about adequate, quality education. Everybody wants to reach their own American dream, and we need to make it possible for that to happen for all families and for all children.

That’s a better message than a message of fear and hate. We don’t need to go to fear and hate to be able to solve the problems of America in terms of opportunity for all.

Much of this new diversity is linked to immigration trends. It’s increasingly difficult to talk about immigration without talking about education, and vice versa, isn’t it?

That’s going to be one of the biggest battles: immigration. Are we going to, as a nation, really target people, split families up? Imagine what that will do to children’s ability to learn if their parents are deported, and now they’re here [alone]. It’s going to have a huge impact beyond what’s inside of the school, to their own sense of well-being and security.

California has long been an innovator and/or early adopter when it comes to education policy. What Golden State education ideas do you want to bring to Congress?

During the time I was on the school board, we finally moved kids out of overcrowded schools and built new schools. It was a great example of the investment that voters understood they needed to make for public education to work more effectively for all kids. We built 150 new schools. When I would talk to people around the nation about that, they were like, “How did you do that? We’ve got overcrowded schools everywhere.” So I think this established [LAUSD] as a leader in understanding that you needed to make, at the local level, the kind of investment that kids need.

At the state level, what I’m most optimistic about, in terms of being a leader and a trendsetter, is the recent move toward dual language. Not just bilingual but multilingual education. That is the future. It’s actually one of my proud moments on the school board that I passed a resolution on multilingual education for all kids, starting in preschool. Given the diversity of our nation, I think that what California did just a few months ago is promising.

Those are the two things I can point to. I’m not necessarily proud of California. We’re still, like, 48th in the nation in per-pupil spending. The governor has not wanted to reinvest to the level where we were before the recession in early childhood education. It has been very frustrating to me that California has been so behind. The only reason that we have some semblance of an early education agenda in California is because of the First 5 that we have. But that is so inadequate. It is not enough to reach all the families that need good early childhood support and education.

So, I think we have a long way to go. But again, I am proud of Proposition 58, and I am proud of the direction we have taken in the last few years in some places in California, but I would not say that California is a trendsetter.

I notice you didn’t mention the Local Control Funding Formula.

For me, the jury is still out on that. The Local Control Funding Formula is good in name and in intention, but I’ve not yet seen the local plans that are coming from school districts be meaningful and robust in terms of serving the needs of the kids that the formula is intended to serve: poor kids, foster kids, and limited-English-proficiency kids. So, I think it could be a game-changer, but it’s too soon to tell. A lot of it will depend on how much support, encouragement, and accountability we’re willing to place on school districts to be true to the values of the formula.

In theory, it could be a lot; in practice, it’s not much yet.

Absolutely! In theory, it could be beautiful. It is absolutely the right policy direction. So let’s see if the results — again, back to results — are the results that were intended with this particular policy around our financial investments in kids in California.

You want to “Make Congress Work For Kids and Families.” What do you mean by that? Got any tips for making Congress work, period, let alone for kids and families?

I mean that, as a legislative body, we would, through policy and through investment, prioritize the needs of children and families to ensure that they succeed. Because, again, if they succeed, our communities succeed and our nation succeeds.

But, you know, since George Miller and Ted Kennedy, we don’t really have that voice in Congress right now. And I hope that it’s not just me when I get to Congress. I want to be able to lead and collaborate with other members of Congress to help bring along this value and this commitment about making children and families a priority. Anything that we do as a nation is about priorities. What are we going to prioritize, and are we willing to put our money where our mouth is?

So I want to lead on that. I want to lead on children and families. That’s what I mean. Let’s invest in the most important thing, in the human potential that we have. Let’s show that we really are a strong nation, and that’s by making our nation work for kids and families.

See previous 74 interviews, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, former education secretary Arne Duncan, former LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy, and former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Full archive here.

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