Diary of a Congresswoman

Mary-Charlotte Domandi:
So we wanted to talk today about this education bill that you are a co-sponsor of, and it addresses basically all the time that has been lost for students due to the pandemic. This is a great opportunity for us to try to understand how bills originate, how they get written, what goes into this.
Teresa Leger Fernandez:
So this one I think is very interesting. Of course, I’m really thrilled that chairman Scott asked me to join him as one of the co-leads in this bill. And to tell you the truth, I think it came out of this, this is an issue that we are hearing from parents, from people all over the place. We know there’s been a lot of loss of learning, and we know that for the children in Title One schools, and for those who don’t know, Title One schools are the schools that are basically our poorest schools. They’re the schools that have a higher percentage of children who get free lunches. And their income level is such that the shorthand is, it’s a Title One school, which means there’s a high rate of poverty in that school.
Those are the ones where a daughter of somebody who is working for minimum wage, that parent is going to have to go to work because they can’t afford not to. And they also then are not going to be able to be there, to provide the kind of supplemental learning that is important if you’re learning digitally or virtually. We know that those are the kids who are going to be left behind so much more. So if you’re in second grade and this is the time where you get to learn to read. When that miracle of reading starts happening in first grade, my mother always called it the miracle that happens when a child learns to read, which is why she fell in love with being a teacher. She fell in love with that moment, that miracle that happens.
Well, the kids in Title One schools, their parents might be working two jobs. So they don’t have the time to be doing as much at home with the kids. And they don’t have the additional resources. They’re not using tutors. They simply don’t have the resources that wealthier families have. So the idea is that we need to get more money into those schools. And that we want to give flexibility to do the schools, like, is it best to hire tutors? Is it best so that you actually can do some intense enrichment? What are the things that need to be done? I’ve heard lots of things; this was an issue that came up when I was running. And of course Bobby Scott’s listening to that. And we were, we had an organizational meeting at labor and ed and, you know, I raised my hand. And I said, you know, this is an issue that’s out there. And I have a lot of Title One schools in my district. So that’s how it starts bubbling into a bill. And of course, he’s got more experience in this area than I do, but having heard me raise this issue and knowing how do we do it, he then says, join me in this effort. And so my legislative director works with his staff and we look at how do we support this kind of bill? So that’s kind of how it goes. And it’s pretty exciting to be a co-leader on it.
Are you thinking about this and the kind of resources that will be available are in a post-vaccination scenario where people are able to see each other again, or how does that work?
I think some of those things are details for—we are not getting into that micromanaging of how you do it. What we’re saying is we need to get the resources to the schools so that they have the funding to be able to figure it out. We’re not the experts, we’re not the education experts. What we are is we are people who understand that this is a need and that you need to pay for the services to get this done. And so what we can do is we can call for this and we can set it up. And then of course this would authorize the funding and would say the kinds of things that the money could be spent on and then appropriations would need to actually fund it. Or maybe it can get put into the COVID relief bill. So right now we’re trying to identify the kinds of things that might fit into the COVID relief bill itself.
Part of the rationale behind all of this is that when you’ve got a group of kids that are behind because of the pandemic and there’s scenarios wherein somebody might have two or three kids, but they don’t necessarily have the two or three computers, or sometimes parents are working at home on their own computers. So it’s not like everybody’s got digital devices all over the place. Or they don’t have a lot of room in their apartment, and so you’ve got two or three or four kids and adults trying to learn in the same room, which is difficult. And that’s what makes the sort of inequality piece stand out here. But one of the calculations that I think is fascinating is that there is an estimate on what the losses are, losses in earnings and losses in GDP and things like that way down the line. What does that look like? I mean, it’s sort of shocking to ordinary people that that’s even calculable.
Well, actually we have amazing economists who can do that. And then the losses are going to be different depending on where you’re at. Are you a graduating senior and what you lost with the COVID pandemic was the wonderful social moments that you have when you graduate, or are you a kindergartner or first grader or second grader when you’re learning key skills—and what happens when you fall behind on that? So the impacts are going to be different depending on where you were at during this COVID year. Our job is to say, what can we do now to try to cut those losses, to make those losses less great. The other thing that we know is happening with the pandemic is it is going to exacerbate inequality unless, we take affirmative action to counter that. And that is one of those things where you can just say, if we do nothing, inequality will only get worse following the pandemic.
So we must methodically say, how do we combat that in advance? This bill is one of many, many that you’re going to be seeing, Democrats and the Biden administration and saying, how do we combat that in advance? And what I like is that there is an effort to do that on a wide range of things that isn’t just only education, but the climate crisis. That there is a statement of what does this mean with regards to the inequalities and economic injustice in terms of climate change and in healthcare disparities. And it’s such a breadth of difference, that you get briefings from the White House now about what they’re doing on the vaccine. I’m in a meeting earlier with the congressional Hispanic caucus, and we’re saying, in New Mexico, compared to what they’re doing in other places, we were so ahead of it.
Cause we had a governor who was waiting for that, who was ready for it. And we moved on it, and we actually got a shout out, New Mexico got a shout out from the White House briefing that the Congresspeople were getting today about the vaccine because of the fact that there is once again—Biden takes over only what is it, eight days now, nine days—but already recognizing that the distribution of the vaccine is inequitable. The numbers that they’re seeing, the Latinos, Native Americans, and Black Americans have higher severity of contracting the illness and dying from the illness. But they’re not getting the vaccine at the same rate of their severity of getting the illness. And they’re not even getting the vaccine at the same way of their representation in population. So that means that once again, until now, and in places other than New Mexico, the vaccine rollout has once again been part of the inequitable and widening inequality.
So you had a White House—we were like complaining about that at the congressional Hispanic caucus saying, we need to make sure we address this and there are different ways we can address it and we were coming up with ideas—and then we get on a briefing with the White House, and before we can raise our hand and say, Hey, there’s inequity, they said, Hey, there’s inequity! And these are some of the ideas for addressing it. And so it was like, aaah. There was just such like, yes, yes. It was so wonderful that there was an alignment, an understanding. Not that we’ve addressed it, it’s gone. No. It’s going to take a while. But they’re saying until they start collecting the data, you’re not going to be able to say it’s wrong because we have a lot of anecdotal stuff, but they’re like, you need to start giving us the data.
So they’re asking for that data, the White House is asking that the CDC and that the agencies collect that data so they can track it. But that’s where it starts, is that recognizing that that’s happening so that we can do the budgeting. And if in Texas, that governor doesn’t want to help out, well, let’s not send the vaccines to the governor. Let’s send the vaccines to the federally qualified health clinics that send the vaccines to the local medical providers that are in the most impacted communities. So, you know, what you’re having now across the board is a recognition of inequities and inequalities, both at the congressional level, among my peers, my Democratic caucus peers. And then we’re meeting with the White House and they’re recognizing it’s true. So we have an alignment that is so exciting because it means we are listening to each other. But it’s not that we’re listening to each other, it’s that we’re listening to the community, we’re listening to what’s happening on the ground. And that’s pretty neat.
Before we go, I just want to go back to the education piece for one second. When we talk about education, you were, were you a Head Start kid?
I was a Head Start baby, yeah!
You know, about early education and how important it is.
Yeah. I went to Head Start. That’s where I fell in love with learning, that’s where the miracle of me falling in love with learning. My mother at the time she was still getting her degree. She had seven kids and she went back to get her degree and become an educator, become a teacher, so we could have a two-income household. It was wonderful. And I still remember it. And I talk a lot about, I was a little girl who went to Head Start and fell in love with learning and know that early childhood education is so key and we need to fund it. But now we know, the science tells us, we need to fund it at a much earlier level. We’re trying to do that in the state of New Mexico, but this is one where the alignment is between the state and the federal. We need to have the federal government come and meet like a state like New Mexico that needs to get that early childhood education funded and help New Mexico with that. Because we’ve had those proponents who’ve been trying to tap into the fund to be able to fund early childhood education. And I just hope they do it this year, because if ever there was a rainy day, we’re in that we’re in a torrent right now. And yet another reason to fund that early childhood education at the state level. But then to have the feds come in and put more money in will really help.