"For years people wanted to suggest the politics was a nasty word," Washington school board member Barbara Lett Simmons observed last week. "They said education should not be politicized. Well, in my opinion, the schools are the most significant institution in society, and necessarily education must be politicized."
Simmons and three other at-large candidates have been criss-crossing the city for the past month, trying to stir up interest and votes in the Nov. 8 school board election. Two at-large members will be chosen in city-wide voting along with five ward representatives.
Although the at-large candidates differ considerably in background and viewpoint, there is a strong dose of politics in all their campaigns, based on ideology ethnic group or race.
Besides Simmons, the candidates are:
Afrodita Constantinidis, 30, who holds a bachelor's degree in education from Federal City College. She is running as the representative of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyite group.
Stuart Rosenblatt, 26, a graduate of Swarthmore College. He now is director of the Washington local office of the U.S. Labor Party. The group used to be as militantly Marxist as the SWP, but in the past two years it has turned right-ward, advocating nuclear technology, opposing environmental controls, and denouncing any moves to liberalize the drug laws.
Frank Shaffer-Corona, 34, a former salesman who worked recently as a legislative analyst and writer for the National Center for Community Action, a federal financed anti-proverty group. Since 1975, he has been active in local Hispanic groups, mainly in the Adams-Morgan area.
In a recent press release, Shaffer-Corona identified himself as "Washington's senior elected Latino official." He said this was based on his election in June 1976 to the Adams Elementary School community board, for which he received 310 votes.
Simmons, 50, a former teacher who heads an educational consulting firm, is no stranger to politics herself. Last year she was vice-chairwoman of Washington's pro-Carter delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Her husband, Samuel, was an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1969 to 1972.
In the current campaign, she is the best-financed of any of the candidates; she reported receiving $6,580 in contributions by Oct. 10.
Simmons also speaks pointedly about being the only black candidate in the at-large contest. In an interview on WAMU-FM, she stressed that D.C. public school enrollment is 95 per cent black, and warned that unless she and other blacks are elected, the D.C. school board might be "dominated" by whites.
"I think that black people aren't even thinking about that," Simmons said. "But you better believe it . . . I've never known of a country in any civilization where the people didn't take over the seize the school first and I maintain that with the return of white people to the District of Columbia . . . that phenomenon is occuring . . ."
In the same interview, broadcast Oct. 15, Simmons said that in Ward 2 "the white candidate (Alaire Rieffel) is getting black endorsements" in a race against Alverta Munlyn, who is black.
"I find that a fascinating phenomenon," Simmons said. "I don't think we can afford to act oblivious to that."
Presently the school board has eight black members and three whites. If Simmons is defeated and Rieffel wins in Ward 2, the number of blacks would drop to seven.
Besides being black and older than her opponents, Simmons is the only at-large candidate who has children. The other candidates are unmarried. One of Simmons' sons graduated several years ago from Sidwell Friends, a private school; her other son graduated from the School Without Walls, an innovative public school.
According to financial statements filed with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, Simmons also is the only at-large candidate with assets of over $1,000. Her statement says her home, just off upper 16th Street NW, is worth $80,000. In addition, she and her husband have country property worth $20,000, two cars - an LTD and a Granada - worth $10,000, and savings and investments totaling $15,000.
Simmons' financial statement does not list earnings, even though she is required to do so by law.
Two of her opponents, Rosenblatt and Shaffer-Corona, are unemployed and are collecting unemployment compensation. Constantinidis works as a dispatcher for an air freight firm, and according to her financial report, earned $2,299 last year.
In contrast to the $6,580 raised by Simmons, Constantinidis reported contributions of $512 and Shaffer-Corona, $177. Rosenblatt has reported contributions of $50 and said he hopes to raise between $150 and $500.
In her campaign speeches, Constantinidis calls for major increases in school spending and in the number of teachers employed by D.C. Schools. She said the expansion can be financed from "the $100 billion wasted annually by the Pentagon," and by raising taxes on businesses in Washington. All high school graduates, she said, should have "guaranteed jobs."
Constantinidis has criticized school superintendent Vincent Reed's competency-based curriculum, which is trying to develop uniform step-by-step methods to teach basic skills throughout the city school system.
"That's a repulsive Skinnerian method that might be used to train monkeys or dogs," she said. "For children there should be a variety of teaching methods, and teachers and children should choose which method to use."
Rosenblatt praises Reed for "recognizing that there's a serious problem in the schools." But he said the curriculum should be turned strongly toward the sciences so students can succeed in a "high technology, nuclear-based economy." Any teaching about "environmentalism" or homosexuality should be stopped, he said, and the classics, such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Beethoven, should be stressed.
To solve the school system's current budget problems, Rosenblatt suggests a "moratorium" on city debt repayments and using the money instead to hire more teachers and reduce class size.
In many of his speeches, Rosenblatt also strongly attacks recent moves by the D.C. City Council to decriminalize marijuana. Supporters of this effort, he says in a campaign flyer, are "menticide merchants" and "bestialists" who want to "ready a generation of youth . . . for Humphrey-Hawkins style slave labor projects."
Shaffer-Corona warmly endorses Reed's competency-based curriculum as a "good first step" in improving the schools. But he stresses that promotion and graduation requirements must be enforced and that "students needing extra help must receive it."
There also must be "firm discipline," Shaffer-Corona said, coupled with efforts to make sure that students and teachers learn "care and respect for each other and themselves."
The school board should make strong efforts to increase spending, he said, but it should also "make the whole system more efficient so we can get our money's worth. "To expand bilingual education, he suggests setting up teacher exchange programs with Haiti and Mexico.
Besides running for the D.C. school board, Shaffer-Corona said he has been busy for the past month as the chief East Coast organizer for a national Chicano-Latino conference on immigration, convened mainly by the Raza Unida Party, a Hispanic group based largely in Texas. He said he will attend the conference from Friday through Sunday in San Antonio, Tex.
Shaffer-Corona said his mother is Mexican and his father was a U.S. army officer. He said he grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, joined the army for three years and attended Howard University for a year and a half before dropping out.
Simmons was elected to the D.C. school board in 1973 shortly after serving as the board's chief consultant in its search for a superintendent. That searched culminated in the appointment of Barbara Sizemore. Simmons received more votes than anyone else on the ballot - 10,895.
During her first two years in office, she was Sizemore's most outspoken supporter on the board, calling the superintendent's foes "racist" and "sexist" and vigorously denying the charges of mismanagement leveled against Sizemore.
Since Sizemore was ousted by a 7-4 vote in October 1975, Simmons generally has gone along with proposals by her successor, Superintendent Reed although she criticizes Reed privately. According to campaign finance records, Sizemore has contributed $50 to Simmons' campaign.
In her speeches and literature, Simmons emphasizes that she favors extending the decentralization process that Sizemore started by giving more power to individual schools. She also calls for expanding innovative programs, adult classes and career education, including vocational schools. Her leaflets make no mention of Reed's new curriculum.
"I can't tell anybody that the competency-based curriculum is any panacea until we have competency-based (school) board members . . . and some competency-based administration, and some competency-based teachers," Simmons said. "You see I have a problem with our putting all the blame on the student."
During her term on the board, she has been active in several national education groups, and now serves as president of the National Caucus of Black School Board Members. In the last fiscal year, Simmons was the Washington board's most-travelled member. She spent $2,807 on seven trips, until the board voted in March to stop her and two other members from further travel at public expense until Oct. 1, the beginning of the current budget year.
Last week the board's executive secretary, Dwight Cropp, reported that Simmons has made arrangements to use board funds for another trip - four days at a conference in the Virgin Island's, just before the Nov. 8 election.
Simmons and Shaffer-Corona are the only two candidates to carry major endorsements in the at-large race. Both have the backing of the Washington Teachers Union, the Greater Washington Central Labor Council and the Washington chapter of Americans for Democratic Action.