Former California state Sen. Gloria Romero gained a reputation in Sacramento as a politician unafraid to fight the good fight, but her latest battle is daunting: making her fellow elected Democrats act with courage on education reform.
"We think this is a new civil rights battle," says Romero, a gutsy, smart Latina who grew up in Barstow and is a former college professor.
Romero says low-income black and Latino students too often receive a poor education in California due to poor teaching. Before she left the Legislature last year, she championed dramatic reforms that angered her natural ally, the California Teachers Association — particularly the "Parent Trigger," a law that gives parents the power to take over chronically failing schools by petition. The groundbreaking law made national headlines, has received attention from the Obama administration and is being copied in other states.
Romero recently became state director of the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a political action committee. Its goal: to financially back political candidates willing to fight first for the kids in classrooms, not the adults.
"We are trying to bring about an awareness and change in the Democratic Party itself to have the courage to do education reform," Romero says.
Democratic politicians often feel beholden to various "adult interests," as Romero describes them, such as teachers unions and school administrators groups, which fork over millions of dollars in campaign contributions. As a result, reforms opposed by these groups usually are watered down or killed in Sacramento.
"It's a political paralysis the [Democratic] party has suffered over the years," Romero says, especially in California, where Democrats have controlled the Legislature nearly every year since 1958, and the state education code and the vast majority of its laws were written by Democrats — under heavy influence from teachers unions.
Romero senses something is changing — there's a "political civil war" among Democrats in California. "Public education is on the decline, and it's not just because of a lack of money. ... You've got these status quo interests in Sacramento, but they are being challenged. And we believe DFER is at the cutting edge."
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Through DFER, a national organization with an office in Los Angeles, Romero plans to conduct community outreach, endorse and financially support candidates and ballot measures — and file lawsuits when necessary. "We believe we are at a tipping point," she says, "and the tide is turning."