Chang-Díaz: Freshman year a ‘whirlwind’

David Taber

Photo by Lisa Beatman
Local state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz speaks to JP/Egleston Square Adult Education Network (JPAEN) members during a legislative breakfast at the Anna Mae Cole Center at Bromley-Heath last month. JPAEN participants spoke about the need for continued funding for adult basic education (ABE), GED, English as a Second or Other Language and job training programs, which have experienced statewide budget cuts this year. The senator voiced her support and shared the story of her father, who as a teenager arrived in the US with $50 in his pocket and few English skills, eventually becoming the first Latino astronaut.

Voters did not elect her to ‘sit in a chair,’ state Senator says

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz has had a busy year.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” the freshman senator said in a Dec. 23 interview at the Gazette office. “I am still finding the vocabulary to describe the job.”

“Having fun” isn’t the right way to describe working as a state legislator during an economic crisis unprecedented in recent history, she said, searching for words. Fiscal Year 2010, which began in July, saw a $5 billion budget shortfall. Next Year, a $3 billion budget gap is projected. “Every month or so, it has been, ‘Do we cut off this arm, or this arm?’” she said.

But, “I love my job,” she said. And she has managed to get in her two cents worth on a diverse array of high profile issues.

Education reform

Education reform, passed in the Senate before the holidays and taken up by the House and signed into law early this year, was one such issue, Chang-Díaz told the Gazette.

One prominent feature of the law is that it gives district administrators increased latitude to hire and fire teachers at underperforming schools. While Chang-Díaz said she thinks that latitude is important, “We pushed very hard…to maintain fair labor practices,” she said.

Instead of giving superintendents unilateral power, the law sets an faster timeline for renegotiating teacher contracts at underperforming schools. If the contract negotiations are not successful within 20 to 30 days, they go to binding arbitration.

That arbitration takes place in a fixed timeframe, and the arbitrator is charged with reaching a determination based on the best interests of the students, Chang-Díaz said.

She said she also successfully sponsored an amendment to the Senate bill requiring the state Department of Education to consider schools’ year-to-year improvements rather than just than just “raw MCAS scores,” when measuring a school’s performance, she said. The details of how to weigh the “growth model versus the test score data are to be left up to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and will not be enacted for at least a year, she said.

Another controversial key piece of the legislation is a hike in the state’s charter school cap, potentially doubling the number of charter schools in Boston.

Chang-Díaz also sponsored an amendment that would have strengthened rules for how many special needs students and English-language learners charter schools are required to enroll. Another amendment she sponsored would have required regular reviews to determine whether charter schools were fulfilling their enrollment goals. Those amendments did not make it into the final bill, she said.

Following her interview with the Gazette, the senator called the Gazette office to clarify that she supports the broader philosophy of the education reform bill. “Sometimes I get wrapped up in the details,” she said.

Passage of the bill clears the way for the state to receive up to $250 million in federal funding for schools, but it also raises the cap on charter schools “in a targeted way. That is very important. It is important to be clear…what the different policy concerns are,” she said.

Charter schools serve as a “lab for innovation” so best practices can be replicated and brought back into the district system, Chang-Díaz said. And, while the ultimate goal is to provide an equal education for all, charter schools function as a “safety valve option,” she said. The goal is “equal opportunity,” and charter schools provide “an immediate opportunity for [some] parents and children to get that.”

“I don’t believe in charter schools as a parallel system to compete district schools out of existence,” she said.

State budget

On the budget, “We have had some defensive wins,” she said. According to a report put out by her office, she sponsored or co-sponsored 16 amendments to maintain funding for about $100 million in government services, including about $3.5 million for emergency food aid; $10 million for rental vouchers for low-income families; and over $13 million for programs for at-risk youth, including $4 million for summer jobs programs.

Last spring, she led an ultimately unsuccessful effort to raise the income tax from 5.3 percent to 5.95 percent. Income tax is a more “progressive” form of revenue generation than a sales tax, because people with higher incomes end up paying more. Sales tax functions in the opposite way. People earning under $34,000 a year spend between 3 and 4 percent of their incomes on sales tax, whereas people earning more than $97,000 spend about 1.5 percent, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

While the senator’s income tax budget amendment only garnered 11 votes in the Senate, that was better than many, including Chang-Díaz, expected it to do. During last year’s budget debate, many considered an income tax increase to be a non-starter. “The issue is back on the table,” Chang-Díaz said.

She did not say if she would propose an income tax increase again this year, saying there might be other revenue sources “we can add to the stew” as the budget debate moves forward.

She said she is interested in taking a look at tax credits the state offers to corporations. “Maybe in flush times they make more sense,” she said. And there should be greater transparency about things like how many jobs are created by firms that receive those credits “so we can make sure we get a return on our investments,” she said.

The senator said that there might not be time for a long debate about the merits of different tax policies right now, because “we are so much in crisis mode—trying to figure out how to hold it together this year and next year.” But the budget crunch is opening legislators up to “trying new things.”

CORI reform

The Chang-Díaz co-sponsored CORI reform bill, which passed in the Senate last year, was one such “new thing.”

The current CORI system allows employers, landlords and others broad access to applicants’ criminal records. Reform advocates say that access effectively blocks ex-offenders’ re-entry into mainstream society.

“The policy conversation got, not smarter, but there was a change in the way people were talking about it” this year, Chang-Díaz said. “From, ‘This is the right and fair thing for ex-offenders,’ it changed to [a conversation focusing on] the impacts on the community around ex-offenders.”

“The bodega down the street is more likely to get robbed” if communities are hosting a large number of unemployed ex-offenders, she said. And recidivism is adding to the $43 million the state spends annually to incarcerate people, she said.

Chang-Díaz said those arguments delivered in an advocacy effort that was “like campaigning, knocking on doors” were what got the CORI reform bill—one of her legislative priorities—passed in the Senate. The House has not yet taken the bill up, she said.

The job

By her own estimation, Chang-Díaz dived into the work of being a state Senator with little hesitation in her first year. “I feel like there is not time to waste getting problems solved,” she said. “I have been watching and learning, but at the same time people did not vote for me to sit in a chair for a year.”

According to the senator’s office, she filed 10 and co-sponsored 37 pieces of legislation. Of her active participation in high-profile policy debates, “I have been really struck by how much just asking and saying things out loud matters,” she said.

Fairly or not, state government is often panned in the media for being juvenile and petty. Chang-Díaz said in her experience so far, the senate is not better or worse than any other workplace. “Having recently taught junior high—or middle school—I think we may be fooling ourselves in any profession if we think we are that much different from how we were in junior high. This is humanity, ” she said.

At the same time, revisiting a key argument she and others made at public forums about state tax policy this summer, she said she thinks cynicism about government has been fostered deliberately. “There has been a concerted, intentional effort over the last 30-40 years to vilify the public sector” and promote divestment from public services, she said.

And then, unprompted, she provided a counter-example. Wide-ranging pension abuses by city and state employees throughout the Commonwealth—widely reported in the media last year, were “egregious,” she said. “I am glad there was a lot of discussion about that in the media. Most of my colleagues were embarrassed and angered, and we passed a strong law. We fixed it,” she said.

Chang-Dîaz took office after her predecessor and election opponent, Dianne Wilkerson, was indicted on federal extortion charges and resigned. In 2008, Jim Marzilli of Arlington resigned his senate seat after being arrested and charges with sexual assault. Former state Sen. Anthony Gallucio of Cambridge recently resigned after being sentenced to house arrest for driving under the influence and failing a Breathalyzer test.

Correction: The print version of this story incorrectly state that state Sen. Sonia Chang-Dîaz was elected after former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson was indicted and resigned. Wilkerson was arrested prior to the Nov. 2008 general election, but was not indicted and did not resign until after Chang-Dîaz’s victory in that election. Wilkerson was defeated by Chang-Dîaz in that year’s Democratic primary and mounted a write-in campaign in an attempt to hold on to her seat.

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