Black Caucus Profiles: Rep. Diane Watson

Farai Chideya talks about the state of America's schools with Rep. Diane Watson, of California. Watson is a teacher by trade and the first African-American woman ever elected to the Los Angeles School Board.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Well, while Congressman Meek is reaching out to young voters, Congresswoman Diane Watson of California has her eye on Americans who are too young to vote. Watson taught elementary school, then she became the first African-American woman ever elected to the Los Angeles School Board.

Now she's in Congress; her fourth term, actually. She's thrilled about the current prominence of the Congressional Black Caucus but, she adds, kids in her home district have plenty of role models close to home.

Representative DIANE WATSON (Democrat, California): In Los Angeles Unified, the second largest school district in the country, we have for the first time an African-American superintendent that was not from the district. He is a vice admiral, commanded 120 naval ships, and he said I'm going to work on self-respect and respect on others.

What an image for these young developing minds. And by the fact that members from my Congressional Black Caucus have the most powerful chairmanship speaks volumes to the opportunities that are available to all Americans, reflects the fabric of who America really is, and speaks volumes to the rest of the world.

CHIDEYA: I come from a family with a lot of educators, including my mom who's now retired from the Baltimore school system, and things are really rough. I mean, you know, Los Angeles. You were elected to the LA Unified School Board. Los Angeles is not a cream puff of a school system. Most city school systems are not. There has been No Child Left Behind. There have been other efforts in the past to really reform or reshape America's schools. What do you think needs to happen?

Rep. WATSON: The reason why our nation at one time was number one in the world is that we had a compulsory education system in this nation. Every child between six and 16 must go to school. That is a commitment that ought to take the first dollar of our accumulated income tax. We ought to fund every single one of our 50 states adequately so that every American can get the basic education they need to survive in a global economy.

CHIDEYA: Congresswoman Watson, sorry to interrupt you. It just strikes me that since you are so knowledgeable about education, you must have read the recent report about how U.S. education is failing the next generation of Americans who are looking for jobs. How do you go about rectifying that? And I'm not thinking so much of kids who are still in school but people who may have already gotten through the school system who didn't get the skills they need, who might not even be able to read well. What should the government do for people who are falling between the cracks already, who may have children of their own?

Rep. WATSON: Under the former administration we had a teacher corps, 100,000 teachers that were going to be trained as experts. We need to reinvigorate a program like that. Education has to prepare our children and those not yet in school and those yet unborn to be able to be successful in a global economy.

We're going to have to look at our curriculum, but we're going to have to look at the issues that stand in the way of children getting the quality education. We have to look at the socioeconomic issues; not only putting more money into the schools, but what are the services we need in our schools. We need healthcare. We need a school nurse. We need school doctors. We need counselors. We need social services in the schools and we need safe streets. And all of these are programs that we can fund on a federal level and require every one of our 50 states to engage in at this new push to improve education for every student.

CHIDEYA: Finally, Congresswoman, you're part of the progressive caucus.

Rep. WATSON: Yes, I am.

CHIDEYA: What does it mean to be a progressive in a House that is now controlled by Democrats but where Democrats are feeling a lot of pressure to be centrist? Do you feel that even though your party is in power, you as a progressive might be marginalized?

Rep. WATSON: What it means to be part of the progressive caucus is to provide the vision and the leadership for the future. And so what we have to do is set the pace. We can introduce legislation and we can play a very vital role. And those who are marginalized, those who, you know, come from districts that could go one way or the other, have to be encouraged that if we unify and we stand for the values and the principles of democracy, they shouldn't be frightened to look at a new view with new eyes that will change the direction this country was going in. And so we are going to provide that inspiration. We're going to provide those policies.

CHIDEYA: Congresswoman Watson, thank you so much for joining us.

Rep. WATSON: You are certainly welcome.

CHIDEYA: U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson represents California's 33rd District.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, is the new cease-fire in Sudan a sign of peace? And will we see Sharpton run?

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