The role of committees in education change

by Jeff Camp | July 31, 2022 | 0 Comments
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A fresh take from a first-term Senator

California’s state senators have a large scope of responsibility. Part of this wide scope is just math: About 40 million people live in California, and the state senate consists of just 40 members. That means each California state Senator represents about a million constituents, a representative ratio greater than any member of the US Congress.

Senator Josh Becker represents the area of California best known as the Silicon Valley. He is a new member of the Senate, now in the second year of his first term. Prior to his service in the legislature he was a tech entreprenuer. We invited Senator Becker to speak to California students at this summer’s Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders. Many of the students at the conference are ambitious young people with an interest in leadership.

The host of the program was Alvin Lee, the student founder of GENup.

The excerpts below are edited from Senator Becker’s remarks. Alvin began by asking Senator Becker why he left the private sector to serve in government.

[Sen. Becker] Your life can take lots of twists and turns — and that’s certainly the case for me. I have an overriding interest in innovative solutions to big public problems. Innovation comes from every aspect of our economy — from government, from the non-profit sector, and the for-profit sector — working together. I started out pursuing innovation from the non-profit sector.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first woman elected leader in Africa. She said “if your dreams don't scare you, you're not dreaming big enough.” That's been a touchstone for me. In the nonprofit world I thought how could I bring people together? At the time I was working at a startup — people who are busy, they've got full-time jobs. The fundamental belief is that together we could do more. We wouldn't necessarily be experts in a particular issue like education or climate or affordable housing, but that if we put our heads together and interviewed lots of people, went out in the community, tried to find innovative organizations — that we could have a big impact.

That was the genesis of Full Circle Fund. We focused on a few issue areas, we pulled our time and money together, leveraging our networks and whatever skills we have from the work we do in the for-profit sector or the nonprofit sector to help non-profits thrive. Along the way sometimes we spun off organizations that would go on to a particular purpose. Ed100 was one of those, and this conference is a particular innovation of Ed100 — so you see how the innovations keep building on top of each other. This is a really fun “full circle” moment for me. I couldn't be more happy to be here.

The role of committees

[Alvin] I guess the million dollar question that I think all the students would love to learn a bit more about today is the legislative process. You introduce a bill and then what's the process like? How does it ultimately end up on the governor's desk?

I guess it’s like a work of art. You have an initial design and then you're polishing it, like a sculpture. Along the way you go to one committee and you get feedback and most of it is positive and welcome. And you say oh, okay, I hadn't thought about that — some of it is maybe stuff that you weren't sure you wanted to take but you say okay, in the interest of moving this forward I'll slice off this little piece, I'll add on a little piece to move it along the process. Each time you're getting feedback from experts. If you're in the energy committee you're getting experts in energy. Then you go to the government finance committee and they're giving you expertise in how your bill is going to affect local government.

“At each step of the process you’re getting feedback”

At each step of the process you're getting feedback. You're getting input. It's very much like a startup company, when you go out and pitch investors. If you start hearing something enough times, you say okay, well maybe I should address that to be better able to answer those questions, and maybe even change direction a little bit.

Each committee has different expertise, different things they're focused on, and different personalities. The Senate committees might have a slightly different jurisdiction than the Assembly committees. Any one step can trip you up. I did have a bill that died in the first committee this year — my Minor League Baseball bill. That's the first time that's happened to me. We met some fierce opposition, but in most cases you can keep working.

“You can always bring it back and try again”

You get to the Appropriations Committee and they have to hold anything that has fiscal impact. That can be a little bit of a black box. Sometimes bills can “die” — that means they're gone for the year but doesn't mean you can't bring it back the next year. A bill can become a “two-year bill” if it's in the first year of a cycle. Right now we're in the second year cycle, so if it doesn't pass now it’s dead for this cycle — but you can always bring it back and try again, maybe in a slightly different form.

[Alvin] Could you give students here today an understanding of the role the state government plays in our day-to-day lives?

Most things that you care about are state issues. K-12 education, certainly. Higher education. Housing. Transportation. Our criminal justice system — we currently spend 16 billion dollars on criminal justice even though we've actually cut our prison population from 195,000 just a few years ago to about 99,000 right now. We're going in the right direction, but we still have three times as many people serving life sentences than in the state of Texas, which is quite extraordinary. It's the state that is making decisions — our state budget, our taxation for the state. I'll be having a town hall soon on homelessness. In all of these the state is important.

It's still very hard to get climate policy done at the federal level… I realized that in an area like climate we could make progress at the state level here. Because we're the fifth largest economy in the world you can have a massive impact. What you do here matters. Cement and concrete are seven or eight percent of the world's carbon emissions. We got a target for cement to get to net zero over time. That's the kind of thing you can accomplish here in California. You have to be persistent. You have to keep working at it. You have to be detailed, keep working and refining and have a great team, but you can have a huge impact.

[Alvin] A primary goal of Ed100 is obviously education, and California is where a lot of education technology arises. Would you mind talking a bit more about how Ed Tech can be harnessed in the future?

I just spent a couple hours on broadband policy. My colleague, Senator Gonzalez, is doing an amazing job on this to make sure that we are providing affordable and better broadband access across the state. We saw during the pandemic how debilitating that was for folks. Access is critical.

I have an education technology bill this year. We need to train teachers to be able to use the latest technology so we created these regional hubs. It was a two-year bill — we're bringing it back this year. In higher education we really have to build our mental health workforce…

…One of the proudest things I've been a part of was I was a founding trustee at UC Merced. Ultimately we think a third of our students will come from the valley, a third from the Bay Area, a third from LA…

Legislators want to hear from students

[Alvin] A big question a lot of our students have is how can we become more involved in the legislative process. What is the best way for students to have an impact on the work that you do?

I saw a great quote from Albert Einstein — he said, “strive not to be a success but to be of value.” If you can be of value to people who are running for office then you'll have a great conduit for impact if that person is elected. When I was running, the woman who was running my campaign — my only paid employee for six or seven months — was an 18 year old. She had just graduated high school. She took the first semester off to work on my campaign. She's doing great things in DC now.

“If a high school student comes up, everybody puts their phones down. They really focus.”

I've always benefited from young people. A lot of my bills come from the community — they come from students by being involved in the process. Being involved in the electoral process is a way to get involved and get to know people. Certainly I have a lot of great people working for me up here and many of them are only a few years out of college.

In legislation, if there are things you care about, people love to hear from young people, especially at the local level. I've been to many City Council meetings. If a high school student comes up or a college student comes, everybody stops what they're doing, they put their phones down and they really focus in because they want to encourage this person and they want to hear what they have to say. When it comes to issues from the climate we're up against deep entrenched interests. Every day it's a big fight and we rely on young people to rally and help us get things through.

So that's my charge to you. There’s lots of ways to be involved in the process. You don't have to run yourself although that's always a possibility down the road but just get involved in campaigns. Get involved interning for your legislators. The one we just hired was an intern. Her first day was today! I hope that many of you will get involved and just realize the influence that you can have.

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