When everything’s political, will you be a pawn or a player?
From the Executive Director, Wesley Smith
September 16, 2019
ACSA Executive Director Wes Smith.
Admittedly, I had never heard of Dr. Carl Cohn before I took his USC Rossier School of Education “Education Policy and Politics” class. Dr. Mike McLaughlin assured my cohort, “You are going to love Carl. He is a legend in our state — formerly the superintendent of the third largest district in the state, longest tenure in the nation for a large urban superintendent [at that time], and he was even portrayed in a movie (‘Freedom Writers’).” This was extremely high praise coming from another California superintendent legend. Carl did not under-deliver. He shared stories about the Long Beach Unified School District and the politics surrounding his hire, governance, labor relations, school uniforms, and the Freedom Writer program. He taught us that all things in life are political and we can either be pawns or players. Carl changed my life — from that point forward I decided to be a policy influencer (player). Recently, I was asked to teach that same course. With the ACSA board’s permission, I leapt at the opportunity to pay Carl’s gift forward. The class has the stated goal of helping students understand the history of policy, how to interpret/analyze policy, and how to implement policy. I met with the USC staff and shared that I would love to teach the class so long as I could focus on also teaching students how to influence policy and do so using ACSA material and agendas.  So, I fly down every Tuesday night after work in an effort to inspire a new generation of student advocates and education policy influencers. I cover the syllabus material, but I do so using current policy issues. Last week we were scheduled to discuss the American dream and the role of public education relative to the American dream. We did.  Last week also saw the announcement of a deal on AB 1505 — Assemblymember O’Donnell’s charter reform vehicle. It was the political conversation of this session; the bill that took the oxygen out of every room in the Capitol. Half the class we spent discussing the politics (history, players, politics, interests, battles, and concessions) of AB 1505. In particular, I shared ACSA’s position and influence. I explained the potential divisive nature of our position. I further explained that all of ACSA’s positions are measured against the standard: “What is best for students?” My students were thrilled that while other classes got to analyze news reports and author summaries, they got to hear what was happening behind closed doors — a perspective ACSA is uniquely qualified to provide. It’s been my honor to share these lessons with my students, but it all goes back to Carl. Not only did he activate me as a policy influencer, he tapped on my shoulder after class one night and said, “You can do anything you want with your career. Sky is the limit. Let me know if I can ever help you.”  Help me he has. He has been a mentor, an advocate, and a reference for me. I would not be where I am today without his influence and support. I am excited to activate other policy influencers and tap students on the shoulder to inspire and offer my support.

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