Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Janet Oleszek . . . Speaks?

Some of you may remember a blog post I did back in spring concerning how Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37) spoke before a Men’s Club meeting at Congregation Adat Reyim. On Sunday, September 23, his Democratic opponent, Janet Oleszek, an at-large member of the Fairfax County School Board, got to address the group as well. The crowds for both talks were roughly equivalent in size; however, many who were present at Olezsek’s talk had not attended Cuccinelli’s and vice versa. Still it was an interesting session, and while the notes I have may not cover every point, I will try to cover some major areas of interest.

While Ken Cuccinelli had come alone to the meeting, Janet Oleszek brought a crutch campaign assistant, Jonathan Murray. The total length of the talk, including time for questions and answers, was about one hour.

Oleszek began the talk by telling the audience why she was running for office. She said it was because of kids and schools that she ran for school board and now for the State Senate. Education is her big thing.

She gave some background on herself, that she is originally from California and came to the DC area when her father got a government job. She volunteered a lot in PTAs, and ran for School Board on the platform of having full-day kindergarten. As of April 2006, the Fairfax County School Board mandated full-day kindergarten to be implemented County-wide by 2009 or 2010.

She says that there are not enough advocates for teachers and kids in Richmond, and that Richmond needs another teacher there.

Her list of accomplishments included:
Fifth lowest per-pupil expenditure in the DC area
More kids passing Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests
Less “No Child left behind” (Direct quote; interpretation is up to the reader)

She said that she wants students fluent in at least one other language, so we should start teaching foreign language in elementary school. (For those of us with kids in the public schools, we are hard-pressed to understand how she wants to do this without phonics.) She says we compete with nations who spend a lot of time on youth (and cited countries like India). She said it is our only responsibility other than safety. We get 19 cents for every dollar we send to Richmond for education. She also discussed a slide presentation former Governor where education money went. (Not that Warner was any big help for Fairfax County in terms of getting us our fair share.)

Her initial presentation was about ten minutes, and then she took questions.

One person said he had heard that Loudoun County pays teachers more than Fairfax County does. He also said that Loudoun County has a policy of building a new school after one reaches a student population of 1,500. He seemed to think that Robinson Secondary School had over 5,000 students.

Janet Oleszek said that the starting salary for teachers in Fairfax County was $45,000 per year. However, Loudoun and Prince William Counties get more State aid. The Fairfax County School Board has no funding ability; that comes from the Board of Supervisors.

She said that Robinson has 3242 kids in it, but it is a six-year school. She will try to get more tax dollars from Richmond to the Board of Supervisors in the hope that it can be used for education. She said that the State can do a better job.

Oleszek cited demographics that cause the disparity in funding between Fairfax and the neighboring counties to the west. The funding formula is based on population, income, and number of students who speak English, among other things. She said that Loudoun also has a waiver from the Labor Day start. She supports year-round schools, especially those for low-income students.

Oleszek said that local kids have a harder time getting into the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and William and Mary. She said the universities are short of seats, and there will be a shortage of slots for Northern Virginia kids.

A congregant asked her about charitable organizations. The State takes money from Fairfax County and gives it to others. She was asked if there was anything wrong with that.

Oleszek answered that in theory, there was nothing wrong with giving more aid to the poorer counties of Southside and SW Virginia. However, Fairfax County gets negatively impacted when this is done so much.

She also mentioned as a transportation-related item that we are losing our teachers due to commutes and loss of carpools. She said that the turnover is worse than the standard 5-% over five years because if a teacher who commutes from a longer distance gets pregnant and the carpool gets dissolved, other teachers in the carpool are more likely to quit. This was the only thing she said about transportation in her time speaking before this audience, even though congregants were told in advance that Janet Oleszek wanted to share her thoughts on issues like transportation. Well, obviously, those are her complete thoughts.

A congregant wanted to know about her views on abortion, civil unions, and taxes. Concerning abortion, she said that reproductive rights belong to a woman and is a decision for her in consultation with her doctor. She views civil unions as a civil right and says that the government does not belong in our bedrooms. She says taxes are a necessity of life, and while she doesn’t like paying them, the government wouldn’t run without them. She stressed the importance of charities and for public/private partnerships.

She said that she is the opposite to her opponent on many issues. She cited the gun control issue, and said that she has two sons, aged 30 and 24. Her younger son recently graduated from Virginia Tech. She said that guns and the Virginia Tech shooting had an impact on tens of thousands of people. As a result of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, she said “There is no reason under G-d not to have gun control.” (Direct quote)

Janet Oleszek was asked why not have year-round schools. Her response was that parents don’t necessarily want it, and it can cut into summer jobs, etc. There is also an extra cost to running the schools year round. She talked about how kids graduate (we presume from college) with high debt, and asked if we are doing the best for our kids. She said that Los Angeles and Denver do year round schools successfully. (We do wonder, though, why so many parents have decided to flee those school systems, then.)

A congregant asked Oleszek if she was familiar with Daniel Pink’s book “A Whole New Mind.” The book postulates that a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) is the new MBA. Oleszek answered that a strong correlation exists between musical ability and mathematical proficiency. She said that it is hard to sell arts programs in a competitive place like Fairfax County. She also mentioned that India is looming, and spends more resources on kids than we do. She said that because we spend a lot on courses, convincing parents to spend more on arts programs is difficult. She also pointed to her own voting choices – that arts are critical.

(Interestingly, this source says that the United States spends 2 ½ times more per capita as a percentage of GDP on primary education than India does. India spends slightly more per capiuta on secondary education than the U.S., according to a different graph here.)

Oleszek’s assistant Jonathan Murray then stood up to make a brief talk to attack Ken Cuccinelli. He told the audience that partisan differences exist. He made the usual attacks concerning abortion, gun control, and taxes. He was even angry at Ken’s humorous attempt to change the Virginia State song to “Tax Man.” (Apparently, they did not have sarcasm where Jonathan grew up.) Jonathan also said that “Janet didn’t want to say this.” Yeah, right.

A congregant asked Janet what she thought of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. She said that she was opposed to the way it was implemented, and that it had the biggest unfunded mandates she had ever seen. She said that at test time, you could “Feel the tension . . . cut it with a knife.” Oleszek said that the consequences of failure were draconian, and that kids can “voucher themselves” into a private school “where there are no standards.” (Nice remark, given that a large percentage of this audience would relish the thought of “vouchering” their kids into religious day schools.) She was positive about the fact that NCLB allows States to develop their own criteria and praised Virginia’s Standard of Learning (SOL) tests.

A congregant reminded Oleszek that in private business and government, people and organizations have performance reviews, which the unions oppose in education. Oleszek replied that she “will not deny the need for accountability.” She gave no specifics.

Oleszek was asked if she was familiar with former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan’s book that mentioned how at the K – 4 level American schools are at a par with other countries, but kids in grades 5 – 12 start falling behind. American kids are last in a lot of categories (left unsaid was despite the doubling of spending on education after inflation). Janet Oleszek was unfamiliar with the book and wondered what was the context (e.g., math and economics). She spoke of how she held focus groups, and the thing that parents wanted most was for their kids to learn how to balance a checkbook. She said that Fairfax County graduates disprove Greenspan’s remarks. She was told that Greenspan was not necessarily limiting his focus to math and economics. Her response was that schools here are a republic, but those abroad do not face the same challenges that we do.

Someone (clearly friendly to or even active in Janet’s campaign) asked her how she stays focused and combats one-liners when voters are inundated with mailings. Janet deferred to Jonathan to answer this one. Jonathan said that responding is hard, but made more attacks on Ken Cuccinelli, this time on transportation. (We told you Janet had nothing to say!) He also said that their campaign is gaining with this kind of campaigning. He made a bizarre disingenuous remark that people won’t buy into the notion that Janet is responsible for raising property taxes by an extra 25% because the School Board does not have taxing authority.

Janet was asked about illegal immigration – what should the State’s role be and what level of public services should be made available. Janet pointed to a letter to the editor of the Washington Post from Gerry Connolly which just happened to appear on Sunday. ( She says she agrees completely with Gerry Connolly. Janet said that we do not have the authority to deport, only the Feds do. She characterized what states and localities are doing as reacting to “perceived” threats on crime and education, threats she said were not true. She said she supports giving ICE authority to jailers to penalize criminals. She asked, “Do you want to penalize non-criminals?” She said “As Jews, this is scary.” (Apparently, she doesn’t know that coming into the U.S. illegally is a criminal act, or that many Jews may be waiting in line to enter the country legally like so many others are.)

Her solution was to allow ICE powers to jailers only, not to allow ICE agents into communities to check residences or to “arrest those who look different.” She said that according to Federal law, they can’t check schools.

She mentioned the 287(g) program, which is a Federal grant to train police to enforce immigration laws. She characterized this as a “slippery slope.” (Some might tell her that public urination also creates a “slippery slope.”) She also said that crime is going down anyway. When she was reminded about the question on what public services should be made available, she responded that in the absence of a law requiring resident status, she can’t answer a question on public services. She reiterated that as Jews we should find this all scary.

Janet was asked what she admired about Ken, specifically to say something positive about something he has done as an elected official. She was silent.

A congregant remembered how Ken talked at length about building coalitions in the State House to gain votes on issues, and wanted to know what Janet did to gain votes for her issues on the School Board. She said that progress is incremental, but over time she got what she wanted, often by compromising (for example, on curriculum or school boundaries). Jonathan stepped in to make more partisan attacks on Ken Cuccinelli by implying that Ken cannot build coalitions. (Obviously, Jonathan should read the Isophorone Blog a lot more.) Janet pointed to the new Glasgow Middle School as an example of her success.

At that point, Janet and Jonathan had spoken for about an hour, so they ended the talk (as it was also nearing time for parents to get their kids from religious school). Janet lingered to answer questions from individuals. She was overheard to have been asked if she would have voted for the transportation compromise bill that emerged from conference, passed, and got sent to the Governor. Janet said that the bill was flawed, and if she were in the Senate the bill would have looked a lot different. So she was then asked if that meant she would have opposed the bill. She would not answer the question, only to say that it would have been different with her around. It was pointed out to her that the bill that came out in February was a matter of public record, and if the specific set of items in this large bill was something she could or could not accept. Jonathan stepped in and said that the bill was not public record to a lot of people when it was voted on. (So how do they criticize anyone who voted for it? Has Janet read it yet?) At that point a lot of other people wanted to talk to Janet and Jonathan, both of whom clearly did not want to talk about transportation specifics.

Overall, Janet was carefully trying to show off her left-leaning credentials to this audience. She is clearly not as conversant on as many issues as Ken Cuccinelli is, which is probably why she has been avoiding debates. She also does not like to give specifics on several important budget and transportation issues important to voters.