With 18 years in the classroom, special education teacher Jia Lee has seen a lot of change. Now, she wants to be the one who makes it.
Lee is running for lieutenant governor on the Green Party ticket, facing off against the incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul and a Republican challenger, Julie Killian, in the November general election.
Even during an election cycle that has propelled underdog candidates closer to office, Lee knows her odds of victory are long. But that hasn’t stopped her before. In 2016, Lee challenged United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in a bid for the union’s top post. She lost but managed to garner more than 20 percent of the vote as part of the MORE caucus — an opposition party that calls itself the Movement of Rank and File Educators and champions pocketbook issues such as pay, but also social justice causes.
When she’s not teaching fourth and fifth grades at Earth School in the East Village, campaigning, or agitating within the union, Lee is active in the opt-out movement that protests high-stakes standardized tests — an issue that she once testified about before Congress.
Lee joins a wave of teachers across the country who have taken their classroom frustrations to the campaign trail in states far less blue than New York, such as Oklahoma and Arizona. Closer to home, the 2016 teacher of the year could be heading to Congress. Here’s what Lee thinks is driving their activism and what she’d like to change in education policy in New York.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you running for lieutenant governor?
I’m running — and with the Green party specifically — because I feel as though policies in education have been largely driven by corporate reformers, who have direct ties with the Democratic party. I see it as incredibly problematic when you have this private/public kind of partnership, especially in government, where money or for-profits are driving decisions in our state. And the Green party is completely untethered to any of that.
I’m realistic about the power of the Green party because of the way our electoral process works in New York state. I believe I’m part of building a more grassroots, bottom-up movement that’s not just talking about the issues that are problematic but highlighting the root causes of it — and that’s the system and the rules that were designed by people in power. So it makes it very difficult for regular people, working people to engage in the system.
How would education policy change if you’re elected?
Currently the way decisions are made, it’s a pyramid structure. It’s very top-down, and my idea is to kind of invert that pyramid and create structures so there’s greater voice coming up from the bottom. How else are you going to know what policies need to be put in place if we don’t know what the needs are really?
Let’s say there’s an education gap or an opportunity gap happening. The analysis — over why that problem is — is in large part determined by people in power. So their solutions have always been to create consequences and rewards like the teacher evaluation system and the accountability system around high-stakes testing. It’s this really test-and-punish system. But if you go to any school that’s struggling, you’ll find that a lot of the answers and problem-solving can come from the actual community.
That sounds hard to do at scale. What kinds of systemic or structural changes could be implemented to make that a reality?
One, we have mayoral control, and that wasn’t always the case in New York City. The largest five school districts in New York State, if you look at them, a lot of them have either centralized control where the elected school boards have been dissolved, democratic spaces were dissolved. It’s a pattern across the country, where centralized control takes hold, and then you have less voice coming up from people.
And then I do believe that our locally elected officials — senators, assembly members — they’re also taking big contributions from education reform groups, charters. And that, in large part, incentivizes the decisions that happen at the local level. We have to push forward rules about campaign finance, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that has to change — the culture of our governing system.
What do you hope to accomplish with your candidacy, even if you don’t win?
I’m definitely very clear about the odds. But at the same time, I’m very hopeful about this process and this work. This candidacy is about really highlighting the process for a lot of people who maybe even never knew who our current lt. governor was, and now they know. That position has, in large part, been kind of invisible in our state, and maybe we’ve brought that to light. We’re electing people into positions of power in our state, and we’re starting to question them, developing ideas around what needs to change in order for a greater number of people to feel like they had a say, and not feeling like they have to compromise one way or another.
Another big push for me in this campaign is to highlight our issues. The root cause of poverty or all these societal ills is the income gap. It’s not about, ‘Oh, you must have worked harder.’ Or, ‘You must deserve your incredible wealth because of who you are.’ No. Everyone deserves to have basic quality of life.
We’re in a moment of great teacher activism across the country. What do teachers want? What is driving this?
Over the last decade, we’ve seen policies that strip our school budgets — so that places a greater burden on teachers. We actually spend a lot of our own personal money — people sometimes don’t realize how much — just to provide basic things like paper, pencils. And in some dire situations — I’ve actually been in this place — we’re actually buying clothes for students or toiletry items. I’ve had friends in New York City whose custodians have said that budgets have been slashed so much that they can only buy a certain number of garbage bags or paper towels for the bathroom. So teachers now in some schools put toilet paper on the supply lists and even purchase it themselves. That’s one phase of it.
And then another one is this incredible, ridiculous accountability system put in place while these budget cuts are happening — asking teachers and students and administrators to jump really, really high — without any resources.
Teachers tend to be nurturers and people who sacrifice a lot. I’ve seen tons of stories in the media about the kinds of things teachers do above and beyond. It just shouldn’t be that way. The burden being placed on teachers is untenable.
What do you see as the value of unions? What do you see as reasonable criticisms of them?
Without unions, working people on the whole, we’ll have no space to collectively organize around working conditions. For us as educators, that has a direct impact on our students’ learning conditions. It’s a ripple effect. It affects our communities. Without our unions, we’re not able to protect and support our communities — let alone our own livelihoods.
I believe that our union needs greater internal democracy, that negotiations with the government — with the city or at the larger level — needs to have greater transparency and input from its constituents. Process matters within our union.
So far UFT membership has remained strong in the wake of the Janus Supreme Court decision, which banned mandatory union dues. How do you think the decision will play out here moving forward?
Being actively engaged in your union is like a gym membership. It’s only as powerful as how engaged members are in the process. So while we might have the roster — a lot of people [who] stayed on as union members — how much do they really feel engaged in decision-making at the policy level?
Collecting dues makes it so that our union leadership can have the finances to continue to operate in the way that they have and not to incentivize them to really listen to members. I’m concerned that unless there is greater engagement, nothing is really going to change, and it’s like death by a thousand cuts in our state. It’s not as visible as in red states, where they’ve had these huge cuts that impacted everyone, and everyone came around to the same conclusion that they had to fight for just their basic rights. Whereas here, it’s very nuanced. So it’s a slow death, I would say, at the rate that we’re going.
How has teaching prepared you for the campaign trail? Have you taken any campaign lessons into the classroom?
I have to say, being part of a school community that’s very collaborative and also being able to foster discussion practices with my students and teaching them how to have debates, be able to present their ideas — in those very concrete ways, it’s prepared me for this. I feel like a lot of teachers could do this. It’s just the work of teaching takes up a lot of our time and energy and passion.
New York City’s elite specialized high schools enroll very few black and Hispanic students. Critics trace the segregation back to the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which currently serves as the sole admissions criteria. What do you think of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to scrap the exam?
I have very strong feelings that the SHSAT is a gatekeeper. The fact that we as a city can say there are elite schools for a few, and that everyone else is stuck with mediocre or less-than schools, is to me completely wrong. We should, as a city, be able to say that all of our schools provide the kind of education that we want our kids to have. If there is such a high demand for a specialized high school that has specific kinds of programming, then we need to find ways to provide more of them — even in each borough or each community if necessary. We’re creating a resource that seems to be very scarce, and in education, why are we doing that?