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Democrats controlled all the local levers of power in Washington, D.C., when the city started pursuing an aggressive education reform policy. But conservatives across the country have emerged as some of the most enthusiastic supporters of those reforms, which rankled traditional Democratic allies in teachers unions. We chat with a local delegate at the Republican National Convention who’s been involved in D.C.’s education debates.
- Patrick Mara Delegate to the Republican National Convention, D.C.; Member, D.C. State Board of Education
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFew Republicans around the country understand the political explosiveness of education better than Patrick Mara. He's a school board member in D.C. who's put education at the center of several citywide campaigns, where he came tantalizingly close to winning seats on the D.C. Council. As it is, he's still the D.C. GOP's only elected city official, and he's in Tampa this week, serving as a convention delegate and talking to Republicans from everywhere about education reform. Patrick Mara is a member of the D.C. Board of Education. Patrick Mara, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. PATRICK MARAThanks, Kojo. I appreciate your having me on the air.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation with Patrick Mara, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. We noted earlier in our conversation with Michelle Rhee that education is one of the major battlegrounds between elected officials and organized labor, and that former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, a Democrat, even said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was taking the right approach when he moved so aggressively to end collective bargaining for public employees in his state.
NNAMDIWhen it comes to education and the GOP, how much of the political energy at the national level do you think comes from a broader desire to target unions?
MARAWell, I mean, to start, as you know, Kojo, I mean, the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, I mean, these are just big political festivals. And, you know, most of the things Chris Christie said, it was just red meat for the base, and he certainly connected with the base, you know? Being in the convention hall that night, he touched all the, you know, touched all the right notes for the folks in the convention hall.
MARAIn all likelihood, Republicans sought America. But at the end of the day, as former Chancellor Rhee said, education is a bipartisan issue. I know that possibly as well as anyone else. I mean, I'm elected in an area that's only 5 percent Republican. And when you look at the issue of education in the District of Columbia, you know, we have one of the larger -- we have the largest enrollment figure on public charter school system in the nation.
MARAWe have education reform that's moving forward, and we also have the Opportunity Scholarship Program. So we're in a very unique situation in D.C. But the one thing that I'll say about the D.C. State Board of Education is that myself and my eight other colleagues, our interest is always in what's best for the students.
NNAMDIRepublicans at the national level are very enthusiastic about the District of Columbia's voucher program for schools, so enthusiastic that they've imposed it on the city even when local officials have not asked for it. You're one of the fans of that voucher program. Why?
MARAI am a fan. Well, first of all, there's a lot of confusion, as former Chancellor Rhee said, in education generally and especially in this particular program. You know, when you're a Democrat, when you grow up a Democrat, you're supposed to oppose vouchers. Well, this is a very unique program, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, in that it is not diverting money away from the local system. It is giving us additional funds.
MARAAnd interestingly enough, with the three-sector approach, we have actually received more monies over the years through this program for the public school system and the public charter school system than we have for this program. So if this program were to go away, then we would not have all that other funding as well. Now, the other thing I wanted to raise is that it's also supported by a majority of Washingtonians.
MARAAnd I -- so I think that's significant as well. If this was supported by five people, you know, just a few people or just the Republicans, that would be one thing. But most of the people who support this program are Democrats.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you support the voucher program in the District of Columbia? If so, why so? If not, why not? 800-433-8850. Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post wrote this month that the Obama administration and Republicans currently agree on a lot of things when it comes to education, but vouchers are a critical difference, essentially saying that supporting vouchers is going too far toward a privatized system of education. How do you see it? Do you think you can support vouchers and still be a supporter of public schools?
MARAWell, you know, I was listening to George P. Bush yesterday, who's the nephew of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and obviously they're both huge proponents of school choice. Now the interesting thing there is -- and I agree with George P. Bush, the nephew of President George W. Bush -- that if there is a President Romney, then President Romney should consider keeping Arne Duncan as secretary of education because I believe that what the Obama administration has done in education is unlike any past Democratic administration.
MARAAnd they have been able to push the needle of reform further than Republicans typically can, frankly, because we have a president who is from Chicago, and we have a president who can buck teachers' unions. Now with the Opportunity Scholarship Program, I do believe that that was something that he could, to a certain extent, throw under the bus and needed to give the teachers' unions something that he was supporting that was pro-union.
NNAMDISee, you're already not sounding like the typical Republican delegate at this convention here with the suggestion that Arne Duncan can stay on in a Republican administration.
MARAWell, he's been an extremely pro-public charter school secretary of education. And when you look at...
NNAMDIYeah. But, I mean, the mood at this convention is throw out all things Obama.
MARASure, but I'm not -- I mean, I'm a -- you know, Kojo, I'm a...
NNAMDIYou're not a typical delegate.
MARA...I'm a moderate Republican who represents the most diverse ward in Washington, D.C. I'm in schools all the time, both public and public charter schools, so I, you know, I live this on a daily basis.
NNAMDIMichelle Rhee is really pounding the pavement on the issue of the parent trigger, the notion that if a sufficient number of parents ask for it, they should be able to be allowed to transform their schools. Do you think parents should have that kind of power in the District? How do you think a parent trigger would change the dynamics of education in Washington, D.C.?
MARASure. Well, it sounds interesting, but as you know, with the mayor taking over the schools in 2007, this is really something that would be, you know, would start with the chancellor's office, I mean, the chancellor and the mayor. They control the direction of the public schools, so I would certainly defer with them. And that's something that if -- you just can't make that decision overnight.
MARAAnd I don't think it would be appropriate for me just to agree with something like that until we really looked at what it would do to not only the public -- traditional public school system but the public charter school system as well.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones now. Here is Deedee in Washington, D.C. Deedee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEEDEEYes, hi. Regarding the voucher program, the voucher program is not the solution. It is a band-aid approach, skirting the real issues again, fear of parents, treating parents like uninformed crying babies who scream the loudest get what they want. Can you respond to that statement?
NNAMDIDeedee, are you still there? Deedee has left us, but you are welcome to respond, Mike -- Patrick Mara. The voucher program is really just a band-aid solution and that it's responding to screaming parents because screaming parents, like screaming children, get the most attention.
MARASure. Well, part of it is, you know, I really do believe that parents, regardless of their economic situation, should be able to send their child to the best school possible. And the OSP, the Opportunity Scholarship Program -- and I have two -- I do have two parochial schools in my ward. And, you know, there's a high level of disadvantaged students -- I believe they're both 50 percent OSP -- that do take advantage of this program. And I think it's an important option for parents who might not be able to afford a traditional private school.
MARASo basically, it's giving private schools to parents who cannot traditionally afford it. And, you know, one thing I also wanted to mention is often -- I did just mention two parochial schools. I don't have any private, non-parochial schools in my ward, but the program overall is only about 50 percent parochial school. So the other 50 percent is non-parochial schools and traditional private or private schools.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Patrick Mara. He is a member of the D.C. Board of Education. He's also a delegate representing the District of Columbia here at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Patrick, it's not often that someone affiliated with the District enjoys rock star status at the Republican National Convention.
NNAMDIBut you wrote a blog post for DCist this week where you said that Michelle Rhee was so popular here that a certain high-profile Hollywood actor that you met here told you how much he liked Michelle Rhee. Who did you meet, and why do you think Michelle Rhee is such a popular person here in Tampa?
MARAWell, I think, nationwide, regardless of your political affiliations, she was seen as a change agent. For whatever reasons, Republicans seem to like her more. I mean, even I know at the National Association of State Boards of Education meetings, that's the association that the D.C. board is a part of, when we're at those meetings talking to national colleagues, everybody asks about Michelle Rhee. Now, one thing that I always mention is is that I, you know, I do believe that Chancellor Henderson is also doing an excellent job.
MARAShe was a big part of the re-team, and I think things continue to move forward. I do -- going forward, I do sometimes worry that the D.C. Council does have a tendency to micromanage a little too much in something that should be controlled by the chancellor and the mayor.
NNAMDIBut the chancellor had such a high profile here that a certain Oscar-nominated actor or Oscar-winning actor that you ran into asked about Michelle Rhee. Who was that?
MARAYes, that was Jon Voight.
NNAMDIAh, "Midnight Cowboy."
MARAI believe I joked in the blog post that I had met 50 percent of the famous Hollywood Republicans at the convention.
NNAMDIYes, indeed. Well, who is the other 50 percent?
MARAWell, I've actually had to adjust because -- it was Gary Sinise -- because last night I conversed and did a photo with Stephen Baldwin.
NNAMDISo there's more than one -- more than two.
MARASo we've had to break down the percentages, but probably Jon Voight is about half of it.
NNAMDIBut Jon Voight wanted to talk about Michelle Rhee?
NNAMDIDid Jon Voight want to talk about Michelle Rhee?
MARAOh, no. We -- that's what -- we talked about former Mayor Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee who, of course, I supported in the Democratic primary although I could not vote in the Democratic primary in 2010.
NNAMDISince you're a Republican. But you saw Michelle Rhee speak this week. On what issues did she seem to get the best response from an audience? She was accompanied by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and there were more than a thousand people there, it's my understanding. We were not there ourselves, so we ask what issues did she seem to get the best response on?
MARASo I was at a -- I believe it was a smaller event.
MARAIt was with younger people. There probably only about a hundred or so folks there. She, you know, she primarily focused on, you know, obviously accountability in education, noted the District of Columbia, how that, you know, obviously how that's continuing -- things are continuing to improve in the D.C. public and D.C. public charter schools systems but, you know, pay performance, the ability to move ineffective teachers, professional development.
MARASo she -- I mean, it was funny because there were people from, you know, all over the country who were Republican sitting behind me, and you could just hear when she came in -- and she came in with Chelsea Clinton. You could hear them say, oh, I really like that woman from Washington, D.C.
NNAMDIYeah. Let's pivot to higher education for a moment because our producer Brendan Sweeney was on the floor at the convention last night, and he had a chance to speak with Evan Draim, a 17-year-old from Northern Virginia, who happens to be the youngest delegate at this year's convention. And Draim said that college affordability and student loans have the potential to push a generation of voters into the red column. We've got a clip. Here it is.
MR. EVAN DRAIMThe Obama administration wants students to go to the government for help for college. You know, my mother was from an immigrant family. She paid off her entire college education through private loans. I think that if students had -- if there was a free or credit market students were able to exploit to get those student loans and get through college, that would be the ideal situation rather than having the president make them dependent upon government for years after they graduate.
NNAMDIWhat potential do you seem, Patrick Mara, in education issues to win over young voters for Republicans?
MARAI think a bit. First of all, I just want to note that, you know, in D.C. one of the most important things that I've continued to advocate for on the Hill and wherever I go is the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program and to ensure that that's not means tested. That was in the Republican platform in 2008. It is not currently in the Republican platform, but we can talk about the Republican platform a little bit, too.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. Let's talk a little bit about the Republican platform because we got...
MARAKind of set myself up there.
NNAMDIYeah. We got a tweet from someone who says, "Can you ask Patrick Mara about the GOP platform and its opposition to D.C. statehood and voting rights?
MARASure. Well, with statehood, here's the big thing, there's a lot of elected officials who gave great speeches walking around the District. Look, I've been up on the Hill. I've talked to both Republicans and Democrats. One of the big issues that we have on statehood is that you have two Democratic senators from Maryland who oppose statehood and you have two Democratic senators from Virginia who suppose statehood. You have Steny Hoyer, the minority whip, who not only opposes it, but he voted against it the last time there was a vote.
MARASo we really need to do a better job of educating folks up on the Hill on the whole gamut of -- or issues, whether it's budget autonomy, voting rights, et cetera. And when you look at these new people, the Tea Party folks, you know, they don't even know. All they hear is abortion. They hear that, and they hear -- maybe they hear needle exchange, gay marriage in their ears. And so these are things that a moderate Democrat will vote against, so I think budget autonomy, we really have to beat the drum on it...
NNAMDIWell, the RNC not only had you here. I saw Eugene Kinlow from D.C. Vote.
NNAMDIHe was going around with an individual who was dressed like Abraham Lincoln. What impression do you think you were able to make on delegates here?
MARAWell, I did -- now, I did do a number of -- I did, actually not a number, a couple of national interviews talking about budget autonomy and how it -- what it means for a Republican who lives in the District 'cause I think a lot of times, folks see it as a Democratic issue when you tell Republicans. So it's very important for Republicans living in the District to tell other Republicans, look, we're also second, third-class citizens. But I did get together with Eugene and Abraham Lincoln and we were spreading the word.
MARAThe other thing I'll say is with my badge that says District of Columbia delegate and so that also was a conversion starter with many, many delegates and most had no idea...
NNAMDIPatrick Mara is a member of the D.C. State Board of Education. He's a delegate representing the District of Columbia here at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Patrick Mara, thank you very much for joining us.
MARAThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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