Assemblywoman Catharine Baker discusses education reforms and student involvement in politics


Amanda Su, Editor-in-Chief

Campaigning to improve education and to serve local schools and communities, Catharine Baker, a mother of twins, a native Californian and a Dublin local, is running for her second term in the California State Assembly.

Baker, the only Republican legislator in the Bay Area, is opposed by Democrat Cheryl Cook-Kallio, a retired teacher who also considers education to be a priority. Cook-Kallio did not respond to a Wildcat Tribune request for an interview.

Starting in 2014, Baker served her first two-year term as a Republican Assembly member and represented the 16th district, which encompasses Alamo, Danville, Dublin, Lafayette, Livermore, Moraga, Orinda, Pleasanton, San Ramon, and Walnut Creek. As a freshman member, she was also in the minority party. But due to her work across party lines, she got nine bills, all bipartisan, signed by Gov. Brown.

“I have young kids in our school system and I’ve been a very active parent, serving on every committee you can think of,” Baker said. “And I had seen things that were working in education, particularly in the years after the Great Recession, that we were not supporting. And there were also things that I thought were really outdated harmful policies towards our teachers and our students that we were required to keep doing. So I literally went to the principal at my kids’ elementary school and asked, ‘What committee have you not put me on to fix some of this? I’d like to see more reform in education.’ And he said there wasn’t one and that most of the policies were sent from Sacramento. I found that [running for the Assembly] was a way for me to be at the table and be a part of the decision making as best as I could be as a voice for my community.”

According to her website, Baker is the only Assembly candidate with children in the school system. She has served on numerous local school improvement committees and on a preschool board. Baker is a trustee with the Diablo Regional Arts Association, supporting arts education opportunities for families and school children. She is also active with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, serving as an archery instructor and camp volunteer.

“[Being a parent] has been very influential because it’s a shared experience that many parents have in this district. And it’s a way for me to understand what’s happening in our schools right now, not 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago,” she said. “And it’s also a way for me to understand what are some of the challenges our kids are facing, our teachers that I work with, not just as a legislator but as a parent, and our principals and administrators. So it gives me a real snapshot of what we’re experiencing all across the district. And maybe some of that shared experience helps me better represent other families too.”

In her last term, Baker authored several bills affecting higher education as well as secondary and primary education. Some of her goals next year are to emphasize in-state University of California admissions and change the teacher tenure system.

“I’m vice chair of the Higher Education Committee, which has jurisdiction over the UC system, CSU, and community colleges and private colleges in California. And I am determined to make sure that the University of California goes back to putting our California resident students first over out of state students. The UC system has been favoring non-Californian residents from other states dramatically in admissions and I think that’s unfair and wrong. They’ve given a 10 percent admissions increase to California students and 452 percent increase to out of state students. My No. 1 thing in higher education is to get the University of California system back on track. I started this year by co-authoring a bipartisan bill with a Democratic member to work on that and some of those policies were adopted in the governor’s budget. But there’s a lot more work to do and I want to continue that work.”

Regarding the teacher tenure system she states, “I’d like allow teachers to master their craft before they’re put up for tenure, and provide lifelong career development for teachers instead of early in their careers and that’s it. I’d also like to moderate the role that seniority plays when we have layoffs in our school. In California, the school districts are only allowed to consider who’s the junior teacher and who’s the senior teacher. They don’t get to consider the needs of the school.”

For example, she states that if a school is anticipating a large number of freshmen coming in the next school year, it may not want to lay off a large number of ninth grade teachers. Or if the school knows it may be short of fourth grade experienced math teachers for the number of students it has coming in, the school should have the ability to consider that during layoffs rather than only base dismissal off of teacher seniority.

Baker’s proudest accomplishment from her last term was the bipartisan bill, AB1058, which will put more child abuse prevention practices and training in schools. According to her website, it will require the state Department of Education to “post [links] on its Internet Website to existing child abuse prevention training resources” and “encourage public schools to train employees in child abuse prevention at least once every three years.” She co-authored it with the most senior Democrat in the Assembly [Mike Gatto] and it was signed by the governor and passed unanimously.

“We’ve seen some really horrible headlines across the state and even in our own community about kids who were participating in school programs who became victims of abuse and we were not doing enough in our school system to protect them. [AB1058] is now law and I feel very proud because I really think that it will protect kids from harm.”

As a local to the area, Baker says she appreciates its diversity and natural beauty and hopes to continue to serve it for a second term.

“When I was your age [in high school] I traveled twice to different parts of the world, with the People to People program. I went to Asia and learned quickly to appreciate and experience other cultures. I also went to northern Europe and the Soviet Union when they were still a communist country and did a lot of international travel when I was in college. And being able to come home and still experience a lot of that diversity and culture, not just the cuisine, is something really special that you don’t see in a lot of other communities.”

She adds, “I love our natural beauty as well. Our environment, our open space, our parks. I really fight hard for protecting and conserving our environment. I supported climate change legislation, and I was the only Republican who did. And our area is beautiful. We get to enjoy living kind of close to a big city but also near wonderful parks and recreation.”

Baker also encourages students to get involved in politics and express their views in numerous ways, most notably for students to vote if they are 18-years-old.

“We, the adults that are in the Legislature right now, are controlling what [students’] futures are going to look like. What bills you’re going to have to pay, what housing you will have, what mobility and roads you’ll have, what technology policies you’ll have, and what job opportunities there are. And for all of your adult life. So it is critical that kids be involved. Also because there’s more of you than a lot of other people and you can have a really big influence. I always tell people you want to find out what you’re passionate about and be in the room where decisions about it are being made. For example, I offer internships in our Sacramento office during the summer and in San Ramon, which is only 10 minutes away from Dougherty.”

She continues, “Students need to tell people what they think about issues. Write your Congressman, write your Assembly member, and express your opinion. Don’t assume someone else is doing that for you because you are your best voice. Don’t be silent.”

“I have very active social media platforms, not only Facebook, which I realize is for old people, but also Instagram, Twitter and YouTube,” she said. “We have an E-Newsletter that goes out once a month. It lists what’s been happening in the Legislature that affects this community, what are some activities and what are ways to get involved. And students can email me, contact our office, come to our town halls, and I love to come and visit schools. And we have advisory councils as well. We have one for teachers and principals and we need one for students to talk about what’s going on in their lives.”

Last year, Baker also hosted a ‘There ought to be a law’ competition for high school students to propose a law that would address and provide a solution for a current problem in the community. One of the wining team members was a student from Dougherty and the team proposed the necessity for mental health counselors in schools.

“Next year we might have a competition like ‘What ought not to be a law’ for something that should be repealed. But students should definitely participate in those! They’re really really helpful for us to get more student ideas. And of course my website is a wealth of information but the old fashioned way is to pick up the phone and give me a call. I also respond to texts!”

Cook-Kallio was a Pleasanton City Council member for eight years. According to her website, she serves on the board of the Pleasanton Partnership in Education Foundation; is a member of the California Civic Learning Task Force Advisory Board and the Teacher Advisory Board for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics Foundation; and is the Northern California Senior Consultant for the Center for Civic Education.

As a council member, her website says, she worked to “enhance public education, increase affordable housing options, improve streets and roads, and make our community safer.”

Among her top campaign issues, she lists reducing class sizes and improving school funding, equal pay for equal work, strong background checks for gun buyers, and more investment in roads and other infrastructure.

In addition to Brown, other prominent Democrats have endorsed Cook-Kallio, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, state Sen. Pro Tem Kevin de León, and state Treasurer John Chiang.