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In the spring of 2020, Chelsea Kelley’s second grader received live instruction from his teacher just once a week for 45 minutes. That meant that Kelley had to get him set up with schoolwork he could do alone, lay out Legos on the floor beside her chair for his 4-year-old brother and hope for the best as she joined Zoom discussions about what must be done for families grappling with school closures across California.
“Please ignore the airplane,” she recalled telling her colleagues as her younger son climbed into her lap, miniature jet plane held high.
Kids were busting into Zoom meetings across the country at that point in the pandemic, but for Kelley, whose job is to help design California’s statewide education policy, and her female colleagues, the situation held special resonance.
“We were our own experts,” said Kelley, a principal consultant to the California State Assembly Committee on Education. “We are living and experiencing what our children are experiencing on a daily basis.”
Having mothers like Kelley occupy seats at the education policymaking table is relatively new for California. Twenty years ago, those seats were filled almost exclusively by men: male elected officials, male staff supporting them from behind the scenes and male lobbyists targeting their persuasive efforts at those staffers.
“Males in every leading role,” said Misty Padilla Feusahrens, who now works for the speaker of the State Assembly, which is California’s version of the House of Representatives. Hers is a distinctly powerful position. She succeeded Rick Simpson, who served nine speakers, from 1991 to 2016, advising them and other Democratic caucus members on education policy.
Staffers like Padilla Feusahrens help draft policy and negotiate the final terms of legislation alongside elected officials and fellow staffers. Other key education players in the legislature include staffers assigned to three committees: education (naturally), budget and appropriations.
Kelley’s boss, Tanya Lieberman, runs the team advising the elected officials on the Assembly Committee on Education. She said she is the first woman in almost 30 years and the first woman of color to do so. Her counterpart on the Senate side is female. The principal consultant focused on education for Assembly appropriations is female. Padilla Feusahrens’s equivalent on the Senate side, a staffer working on education issues for the president pro tempore, is female. The list goes on. There are male staffers involved, of course, but they no longer dominate.
77% of teachers are women, but only 31% of district chiefs are.
Having that many women in top roles in education policymaking is still rare. Across the country, the vast majority of the education workforce is female. Seventy-seven percent of teachers are women, but only 31 percent of district chiefs are, according to an April 2019 report by Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan nonprofit. The report’s authors called on “school systems, school boards, mayors and governors nationwide to make urgent changes to shift the gender balance at the very top levels of education leadership.”
Across the nation, that change may be on the way, and in California it already includes legislative staffers like Kelley, Padilla Feusahrens and Lieberman.
“It’s very exciting to have all of these women in decision-making positions,” said Senator Connie Leyva, chair of the California Senate Education Committee. “This is how we change the conversation at the table.”
Yet Rick Simpson, Padilla Feusahrens’s predecessor, was skeptical that having women in top positions would ultimately affect policy decisions.
“I suspect it’s not going to have a whole lot of impact,” he said, “because [policies are] largely based on the fiscal imperatives, the political imperatives.” Whatever differences arise due to senior education staffers being female he said, would be “at the margin.”
Simpson said the gender imbalance during his time as a staffer wasn’t that noticeable. “I don’t really recall noticing that there was a gender imbalance as much as in hindsight there seems to have been,” he said.
Delaine Eastin, a woman who served as an Assembly member when Simpson was a young committee consultant, did notice.
“I made a suggestion, and they just glossed over it,” said Eastin of a meeting during that time. “Ten minutes later, one of the men made the same exact suggestion, and everybody raved about what a brilliant idea it was.” (She later became the state’s superintendent of public instruction.)
Though the percentage of state legislators who are female varies widely from state to state, nationally, after January’s swearing-ins, the 30.2 percent of statehouse seats held by women is a record high, said Jean Sinzdak, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Six times more women hold these positions now than in 1971, she said, but in just one state, Nevada, are they the majority, and in only 12 others do they make up more than 34 percent of the total. That leaves 37 states where women hold 34 percent or less of legislative seats.
30.2% of statehouse seats are held by women nationally, a record high.
Similar demographics aren’t kept for legislative staffers, but Hechinger Report interviews with state staffers proved revealing. Many state legislative committees don’t have dedicated education staffers — take, for example, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Delaware and New Hampshire. Other education committees list only men in these positions on their websites (for example, Tennessee). In Oregon, Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina, the number of women in these roles has equaled or surpassed that of men since the turn of the century. The Iowa Senate has had gender parity among education analysts for at least eight years, and Arkansas seems to have followed a similar trajectory as California, with its Assembly education committee staffed by a woman since 2019 after being staffed by a man for more than 20 years.
But does having a critical mass of female staffers really impact how policy is made? And are any resulting differences significant, or just “at the margin”? This is where California’s experience is instructive, especially since the pandemic began.
Many of the women in top positions in California weren’t comfortable commenting on the record. As a rule, staffers don’t, leaving the public debate to those they call “the electeds.” Plus, the men they replaced tend to have been mentors they respect, explained Lieberman.
Kelley, who served in the same principal consultant role under Lieberman’s predecessor, said that before Lieberman took over, “deals were cut, and we were told about it later. Now, we’re a team, and work gets shared. We get pulled in on everything to give advice. It’s a new day.”
Padilla Feusahrens, who has worked at the statehouse since 1999, remembers doing all the background work on policy proposals and then not being asked for her input on major decisions about the final policies. Now that she’s in charge, she said, “every opportunity that I have to have a discussion at a critical decision-making point, I try to bring in the consultant that worked on that policy.”
“When you’re the only one, you don’t have much choice but to conform to the culture. When there are many of you, you get to shape the culture.”Tanya Lieberman, chief consultant, Assembly education committee, California
As the pandemic took hold, Assembly staffers in the speaker’s office and the education, budget and appropriations committees could easily have fought over territory. Instead, Lieberman said, “We all kept a giant spreadsheet of all the issues we were tracking. It crossed every single policy topic, so we were thinking about instruction, we were thinking about teacher credentialing, we were thinking about funding, we were thinking about attendance, we were thinking about early childhood education, we were thinking about athletics — every aspect of school suddenly had to be rethought.”
Samantha Tran, senior managing director of education policy at Children Now, a nonpartisan research, policy and advocacy organization, noticed. “I find the process more accessible. Like, I don’t have qualms about just picking up the phone and calling folks and talking stuff through. There definitely seems to be an openness to that, and in my experience, it is different.” Tran said she’s not sure if it’s “a gender thing or a timing thing or a context thing.”
“Lots of us are moms, and because we’re living these experiences personally, we provide a different lens.”Misty Padilla Feusahrens, special assistant to California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon
Lieberman thinks gender plays a role.
“When you’re the only one, you don’t have much choice but to conform to the culture,” she said. “When there are many of you, you get to shape the culture.”
The heightened inclusiveness seen since she took over in 2018 is not some caricature of femininity, all chitchat and smiles, she said. “It’s strategic. We know that collaboration is a really powerful lever for solving problems.”
According to research, she’s right. Crafting policy collaboratively leads to better proposed policy (likely thanks to information sharing and delegation of tasks), increases the probability that legislation will pass and builds the relationships, trust and communication channels needed to be effective in the future.
Women’s willingness to collaborate is “a residue of how women have been asked to work,” wrote Daisy Gonzales, deputy chancellor of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, in her 2016 dissertation for a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Women’s relative lack of power historically means they have “had to figure out how to do their job without the titles and authority to make those decisions.”
Some of the state’s top education policymakers also say that their role as mothers affects how they think about policy. “Lots of us are moms, and because we’re living these experiences personally, we provide a different lens,” said Padilla Feusahrens.
Kelley said that has been more true than ever during the pandemic: “Having women make decisions about policymaking while also living firsthand the choices of those decisions is different than with men.”
During the spring of 2020, some of these staffers’ children were offered three hours of live, interactive teacher instruction a day, whereas Kelley’s son was just read a book once a week. Others had something in between. As a result, Lieberman said, “The requirement that there be daily live interaction with teachers became something that was really important to all of us working on this, and it ended up in the law.”
Indeed, SB 98, which the governor signed in late June, requires that, in order to receive state funding, districts must provide “daily live interaction with certificated employees and peers for purposes of instruction, progress monitoring, and maintaining school connectedness.”
Though male staffers with school-age children can be equally attuned to the details of their kids’ educational lives, men in general are not.
Today, “research consistently shows that fathers do more than fathers in 1960,” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor at Ohio State University who focuses on psychology and population research pertaining to families, “but they still don’t do as much child care and parenting as mothers do, even mothers who work full-time.”
Women’s willingness to collaborate is “a residue of how women have been asked to work.”Daisy Gonzales, deputy chancellor of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office
When mothers, like Kelley, have kept their jobs and are ostensibly splitting the work evenly with male partners, there can still be imbalances.
“My husband and I have split up the day,” she said. “During certain hours, I’m in charge, and during certain hours he’s in charge, but guess who the kids come to anytime they need something?”
Luckily, working on a team where women aren’t the minority meant no one judged her competence just because her laptop keyboard was doubling as a toy jet’s runway, or lost faith in her seriousness when her older son informed everyone listening “I had a normal poop today.” (Researchers theorize this is one benefit of women’s caucuses: They make space for more deep engagement in policy by increasing comfort.)
“I do think that it’s made an incredible difference” to have women in decision-making roles for education policy during the pandemic, said Heather Hough, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent research center at Stanford University. “If you are a woman who has small children at home, you see how hard it is every day. And so there’ve been a lot of conversations that I’ve been in where, because that’s the experience of so many of the people who are part of the conversation, they really come critically to discussions about how well distance learning is working, as well as what kind of supports parents and families need at home to be able to do this.”
“A lot has changed. A lot still needs to change.”Misty Padilla Feusahrens, special assistant to California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon
The historical absence of women in education leadership, the writers of the Chiefs for Change report asserted, has disserved students “by squandering the promise of many of the nation’s best education leaders.” It is also “a problem of fairness, of representation.”
At the end of the day, many of these women and other female legislative staffers still report to men and, disproportionately, white men. (And that’s not only true for the legislature. While the heads of California’s public education systems are all Black or Latino for the first time, not one of them is female.) Padilla Feusahrens works for a man. Lieberman also reports to a man. And most of the men holding elected positions in California are white. In fact, though white Californians make up 37 percent of the state’s population, they account for 54 percent of state legislators, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
“A lot has changed,” says Padilla Feusahrens: “A lot still needs to change.”
In the meantime, Kelley said, she and her colleagues will continue to “take direct examples from our homes about what is not working, and use that as the starting place for policy change.”
This story about education policy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.