For this year’s “Advocate Interview” – a largely unedited discussion with local newsmakers – we invited the candidates for the Fifth Congressional District, Pete Sessions and Regina Montoya Coggins, to our offices to debate some of the issues affecting our community. In a departure from previous years, we’re running the discussion in two parts. Last month, the candidates discussed issues concerning healthcare and the environment. This month, the interview concludes as Sessions and Montoya Coggins discuss public education, and tell our readers a little about their families and views on other issues.
ADVOCATE: Now, let’s move on to public schools as another topic. I just want to remind you guys that our readership area is DISD and RISD. Obviously, when you’re looking at public education, people are awfully concerned, and many are looking for alternatives – whether vouchers, charter schools or private schools. What do you think? What can you do, if given the opportunity? Should we be looking for the federal government to solve the problems of public education?
MONTOYA COGGINS (M): Public education is one of the key issues for the people of the Fifth Congressional District. We have some problems with our district right now. The kind of leadership that we’ve had regarding the school system here, and particularly in Washington…I’ll give you some examples. People are telling me right now we don’t have the kind of technology in our schools that we need. That’s because we have some old schools in the district, in both districts, and we can’t get the wiring to those schools.
Now we had opportunities where Pete could have voted to allow funding to come back to the district to improve the construction to either, increased construction to improve those schools. A one-time deal and we haven’t done that. You go out into these schools not far from here, and you’re going to see portable after portable after portable. One of the little girls just told me a few days ago that when she was in one of the portables at Lakewood Elementary School, there was a real problem because the air conditioning wouldn’t work very well. If there was a very big wind it would shake the entire building. How can you study under those conditions?
The other situation that you fall into, as well, in the schools right now is the classroom size is too big. Teachers are often having classes now where they cannot give the individual kind of attention to children. We don’t have the after-school programs that we need. I have been very involved in the civic community of Dallas for many years. I’ve lived in the East Dallas area now for over 20 years, and in my home for over 15, and one thing that you keep seeing is that parents are working very hard and many times working outside the home until maybe 5:30 or 6 – maybe later. Their children do not have after-school programs that they can go to. Those are the issues we are dealing with right now.
Now I mentioned to you I come from the business background, business sector – I come from the non-profit sector as well. Let’s create the kinds of initiative where we have businesses and non-profits and schools working together to be able to provide these kinds of programs. You don’t even have to have big government involved in this. You have to have someone who’s a catalyst, who understands these are the issues that parents are facing on a daily basis, and tries to do something about them. So those are going to be the priorities for me in education. It’s going to be to ensure we have the technology so that every child in the Dallas Independent School District and Richardson Independent School District can be able to compete with kids not only in Highland Park but New York City, Los Angeles and Munich. But we can’t do that right now because of the kinds of infrastructure situations that we have.
SESSIONS (S): Of the two of us, I believe I am the only one with children who attend public education, public schools. I’ve got a fourth grade student who attends Lakewood Elementary, and I’m around Lakewood Elementary and see the teachers, see the classrooms, I see the environment. My wife and I also have a Downs Syndrome little boy who is six years old who will be going to Lakewood this next year, so we look directly to the teachers and the principal who are at Lakewood Elementary as other people do in the Fifth District of Texas. They look to their school system and their teachers to provide a quality education. I believe that the best way that you fix education, which is the number one problem in the Fifth District of Texas, that the education of our children, safety of schools, the opportunity to have them be a learning environment, is that you get the federal government out of the schools.
Today, the federal government provides seven percent of funding and over 77 percent of the red tape. The Republican plan has called for making schools accountable for themselves. We have plans that require and allow local school districts, and principals and teachers to be able to control the problems that they have – to make decisions within their school. Many times what comes into play are federal guidelines that they cannot operate within. Texans make better decisions about their own education. Education flexibility is the key.
I say thank goodness that we’ve got the opportunity to get high-tech in. There have been a good number of companies, not only in Texas, like Dell Computer and Compaq, and also mentoring programs that have taken place in Dallas schools for many years that I’ve been a part of, through my Rotary Club, through Southwestern Bell when I worked for them, who’ve gone into schools and mentored and tried to give real life mentoring from professionals and others. If we’re going to fix the schools, the first thing we’ve got to do is to allow the teacher to be able to control their classroom, with the teacher to be able to offer their own discipline. I’m not talking about a discipline that would be outside of the norm, but rather one that is in the norm.
Too many times we hear about disruptive students – one or two that disrupt the entire classroom. What we’ve got to do is allow the local school district, the local people, to be able to run their own schools.
Lastly, 77 percent of the rules and regulations of schools come out of Washington, D.C. Not one bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., knows my sons by their names, by their faces, or by their needs. But the teachers in the schools do, and those are the people who should have the flexibility, the authority and the responsibility – this Republican Congress is attempting to do just that.
We’re attempting to give 95 percent of the money, without the strings, directly to the schools. But, it has got to be placed in the classroom.
(M): Then I would have to say, Pete, that you have been failing with this congressional district because I see too many schools with too many portables. I hear from too many teachers who say that the classroom is too big. And I am saying there’s something very simply in terms of the information highway. We would all agree that it’s very important that we provide the kinds of interstate highway systems that we have, and we provide those kinds of funds to deal with that. Let’s do the same thing for our children on the information highway as well. Let us say that we will pledge to create those kinds of resources. Let the schools decided how they want to use those resources, but let’s make it a priority.
Let’s look at the schools right now and say: Whatever they’re doing in Washington, it isn’t working now because of the number of portables, because of the lack of technology for schools, because there are disruptive students who are creating havoc in some of the schools systems. It is not right – that’s why people are challenging it, and that is why people are saying we’ve got to do something.
I am the daughter of a retired DISD teacher who taught for decades, and I can tell you we need to help our teachers. That environment where teachers can teach and children can learn is just not there with the kinds of resources that we’re receiving form our representation right now. Out of touch again with the Fifth Congressional District, Pete.
ADVOCATE: We’ve done a little bit of research on this thing. I’ve noticed NPR national talk radio has done a study, and part of the study, and correct me if I’m misunderstanding, indicated that 75 percent of Americans would pay at least $200 more in taxes to fund public schools, 50 percent would pay $500 more a year to make the public schools better.
But, in a similar poll, when people were asking teachers what the problems were, 80 percent of the teachers didn’t say that they didn’t have enough money; they said the biggest problem was parents who refuse to make their children accountable for behavior or academic performance.
It’s an interesting question: If we throw a bunch more money into schools, is that really going to make a difference? What, if anything, can we do to make parents more accountable?
M: I would have some issues with the after-school programs – on how we get parents more involved. Right now we have too many schools, and we can’t cut through the red tape many times with the non-profits working and businesses working with the schools. We have these wonderful available buildings sometimes after 3:30 or 3:45 that, if we were able to create this kind of partnership with these various organizations, we would have this kind of after-school program where parents are having to volunteer their time as well. We have fallen away from that in terms of creating the kinds of opportunities for people to be able to give back to their community in these kinds of volunteer areas.
This is one perfect example where other school districts have done exactly that. It’s a requirement that, to be able to have your child in some of the pre-k programs or an after-school program, you as a parent have to volunteer some time. We could do that on a Saturday when parents might not be working outside of the home – we can create that kind of flexibility for people to do that and to be able to give back and understand, then, that they are a part of it, that they have become a part of this kind of process that helps all of the children. That then would create the kind of relationships that have not been created for some parents with their teachers.
S: I would contend that the State of Texas and local school boards are the people who should be allowed to look at their individual circumstances and make the wise decisions – local control by local school boards and local parents and local teachers, based upon the individual needs that they have in their own community. That is why we are trying to provide the most amount of money ever.
Every single year for the last five years, there has been the most amount of money added to education that has come from the federal government, and we will continue to do that, but we have got to do away with the strings that are attached. We’ve got to let local school districts make their determinations and, as has been alluded to here, the ability to control students and accountability. It will continue to be a problem until we allow the teachers and principals to have full authority and responsibility.
ADVOCATE: There is one more education question – if I’m understanding this correctly, you guys basically live in the same school district?
S: I believe that’s right.
ADVOCATE: And a lot of people in school districts in a lot of places go through the thought process of: Do I put my kids in public school, or do I put my kids in a private school? You guys have reached different conclusions.
S: Well, we have different age children also. Let’s just face it. Regina’s daughter is 12 or 13 years old.
ADVOCATE: Has she been in private school since she started?
M: No, she was at Lakewood Elementary when she began.
ADVOCATE: And when did you make the decision to change and why?
M: It really kind of goes back to this issue of parents making decisions of what’s best for their children.
S: Which I completely concur with.
ADVOCATE: I’m asking the question to you guy individually – it doesn’t necessarily have any important implications overall.
M: What is important: I am a graduate of public high school, again as I mentioned my mother has been a retired DISD teacher and also taught in the Garland schools before that, and it really comes back again to understanding that the best opportunity for our country is providing the best kind of educational system for our children. That’s why it is so important that we not have vouchers, and Pete – correct me if I’m wrong – I understand you support vouchers. I will not support vouchers because it will take money away from the public schools. It might benefit me personally, but I can make the decision for myself as to what I want to do in terms of my own daughter’s education. But I also recognize that this country is the most wonderful country in the world because of the educational system we have been able to provide for our children. That is why we are technologically at the top of the game. We are at the top of the game in business because we have invested those kinds of funds and those kinds of resources in our public education system. It has to work for everyone.
S: I do believe that what Regina has said is technically correct. I do support vouchers for the things that Congress makes the decision on and (for which it) has federal authority. Indian schools, Washington, D.C., military schools and funding where there are military people. That is the only area where Congress has any authority or responsibility.
I do believe in Washington, D.C., that, where there are schools that do not work, we should offer a competitive alternative. There were only 1,000 vouchers that were allowed. We fully funded the request from Washington, D.C., plus gave 1,000 scholarships, and 7,000 parents were angry that they could not get 7,000 more. We fully fund, or try to fund, an opportunity for vouchers with Indian children who would have an opportunity to go to different schools. And we do fund them for military dependents because sometimes they’re on military bases and sometimes they’re not, and rather than making them go to one school, they may want to live off base. But, that is the extent of the federal responsibility and to say otherwise would simply be irresponsible.
M: The question would be though…you mentioned those parents who weren’t able to take advantage of the vouchers because there weren’t enough resources available. Would you have voted to allow more vouchers to be able to have allowed those parents to have taken advantage of the voucher system?
S: We fully funded the Washington, D.C., request, and we provided 1,000 vouchers. It was the Democratic Party that opposed the vouchers of these other 7,000 parents. And, yes, I would have, absolutely. I would have voted based upon the personal request of 7,000 parents in Washington, D.C., at a rally that occurs every year. And, might I add, almost a fiasco because it’s almost like a lottery where only 1,000 of the 8,000 that want it get it. And if that’s an opportunity for poorer people – to help them – and they’re asking for it, then I think that it’s a good thing for Congress to do since we have that authority and responsibility.
ADVOCATE: Would you both spend a couple of minutes just talking about your families so people can get a little better view of where you’re coming from?
S: My wife and I met doing Junior Achievement 17 or 18 years ago. She was a math major from the University of Texas, and I went to Southwestern University in Georgetown. We both worked for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, which is by and large how I met her, and I stayed there for 16 years. I didn’t miss a day of work and retired in 1993 to run for Congress. We have a background of working together, not only on activities for youth and the community. I was a (Boy) Scoutmaster for several years and had 12 Eagle Scouts that I was Scoutmaster for. I am an Eagle scout and, during 1999, I received the National Distinguished Scout Award. I’ve been involved in a good number of projects here in East Dallas, including being on the board of the YMCA. Since 1989, I have attempted to develop not only that program but the opportunities for disadvantaged youth in East Dallas. I was head of the Boy Scouts in East Dallas for a couple of years. Served as a chairman of what was then the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce, now the Dallas Northeast Chamber of Commerce.
My wife and I are engaged in things that take place at Lakewood Elementary. We were at Stonewall. We attempt to integrate our Down Syndrome little boy, Alex, into a lot of mainstream activities. We don’t have any idea how far he’s going to go. We just want to take him as far as we can. We attend a Methodist church here in this area. I am engaged in another activity with White Rock Lake. As a conservationist, I deeply believe we’ve got to take care of those things that are around us and closest to us, and White Rock Lake is that activity.
Years ago I went to the head of For the Love of the Lake (a volunteer group) and said: Give me the toughest project you’ve got. I did this on my own, and she gave me the toughest project. We are now a weekly and monthly activity, but I believe For the Love of the Lake isa great project that many people, schools, Scout troops, Girl Scouts troops get engaged in.
I am very proud of the work that my wife and I and my family do here, and I deeply believe that the East Dallas area combined with the Arboretum and the other activities we have – it’s the greatest place to live. I’m very proud of it and will continue to represent this and make our community better for a lot of people.
M: My husband and I have also very much loved East Dallas. When we came here, and I’ve basically lived my entire adult life in the Dallas area, my husband and I have been involved. He’s a novelist and a federal prosecutor in our area, and he has been doing that for the last seven years. Paul and I have been married now almost 24 years. It’s been a good long time, and we have a 13-year-old daughter named Jessie. She’s very involved in softball, she’s involved in some of the community activities too through our church, which is very close by.
And I have had experience in the business community. I’ve served on a number of different boards from Texas Commerce Bank to Trammell Crow. Been an advisory member of the Dallas Citizen’s Council, the Greater Dallas Chamber, the North Dallas Chamber, but I also have been very active on the community non-profit side. I just finished four years as the national president of Girls Inc., which works with children ages six through 18. We focused on leadership development and reducing teen pregnancy, on making sure that kids have the opportunities in science and technology. Those are the passions that I have been involved in for a number of years.
I’ve been very fortunate to have received awards from the Women’s Center of Dallas, from Girls Inc., also from the YWCA. The kinds of volunteer experiences have put me in contact with so many people about these issues.
Paul and I have both learned a lot from our parents, too, particularly in my case with my parents. My dad is a WW II veteran, and my mother has taught for years. She went back to college when I was in the eighth grade, so she has always been a mentor for me – someone who has given me the kinds of values about respect, about giving back, and that is what has been so important. So this has been a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the City of Dallas, to this area, to the state, because there are so many incredible people who live in our state, in our district, and I’ve just been really pleased to have had the opportunity to work with so many of them in so many different areas.
I’ve also served on one of the advisory committees or one of the committees to the board of trustees at SMU. I’ve been a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. I have been a partner in one of the big law firms and have also been involved in the business side. So those are the kinds of experiences that have been important to making me the person that I am. And it’s the values that I learned from my parents that have really encouraged me and my husband and our family to give back as much as we can, because we have been so blessed and been given so much.
ADVOCATE: How about a one-minute wrap-up of pretty much anything you want to say. Do you want to bring up something else?
M: I really just want to again reaffirm that this campaign and race is going to be about priorities, and we talked about some of those already. But again, we’re going to be going back to these issues of education. You’ve heard my background from the non-profit sector – as an educator, it’s going to be a very big priority. We have got to have our kids competitive for this century. They’ve got to be able to compete with kids across the world. That’s why we have to make sure that we have the technology available for these kids, that we have the after-school programs, that we have classrooms that are smaller as well.
It is important, as well, that we shore up Social Security and Medicare. We have got to make sure it is a commitment that we have made to our seniors – that it is strong and that it remains strong. That is going to be a priority for me as well. And the issues of the environment…we have to be able to say to our children: You are going to be able to drink the water, to be able to breathe the air, and we are the stewards for you – we have to be able to give to you what our parents gave to us. If not at least what we have now but even better.
That’s the opportunity we have in the Fifth Congressional District. I’m excited by the kinds of challenges, the partnerships I have been able to create in the past. I am someone who likes to unite people and who is a consensus builder. I would like to be able to work with the people of the Fifth Congressional District, as well. It would be an honor and a privilege.
S: When I first ran for Congress back in this district in 1994. I stated that I did not believe there was any problem in America that could not be solved. But that it would take responsibility and hard work and going the right direction in order to solve it. And I have learned that virtually every single vote in Washington is for more taxes and more spending and bigger government. I’m for less taxes and less government and letting local people make decisions, and the parties represent that. That is what the parties are for in Washington.
The Democrat Party is for higher taxes, it is for more spending, it is for more comprehensive government control. I’m proud to say that I’m not. I am for those things that, like I also said when I went to Congress, that it is my pledge that if we did not balance the budget, the federal budget, by the year 2002, that I would not accept a paycheck. And at that time, it was in doubt. It was not a sure thing. Since I’ve been in the Congress, we have not only balanced the budget, we are now balancing the fifth year of a budget because we’re working on next year. We’re also in our second year of not spending, not just some of Social Security, but none of Social Security in order to run the government.
There are many, many issues in this country that do require attention of the Congress – that require Congress to not only understand them but to make some decisions or give some direction on them. I believe this country – if we keep pushing the power, the authority and respect back to the local people – they can make far better decisions than someone who is the chairman of a committee from New York or a chairman of a committee from Connecticut or somewhere else who’s making a one-size-fits-all decision many times about our lives. I believe we are not only headed the right direction now, because we have a Republican Congress, but that we are going to continue.
We are going to continue by cutting taxes. We are going to continue by doing things where we don’t have a marriage penalty. Where we allow better opportunities for investment, where we cut capital gains taxes. I am pushing for, and I believe we will have with a Republican President, a plan that I have been working on for a great deal of time: where we do not tax re-invested savings of any individual in America. I believe that if we want to empower more people, we will let them keep more of what they earn, and especially when they’ve worked hard to put something in a savings account. I think it’s wrong that it’s taxed at that tax rate. Every year, many times, they have to take money out of an account to pay taxes.
These are the differences, they are sharp differences, between more government control, more government interference, more spending – or whether we’re going to encourage our economy, the free market, and empower local individuals. And that is what I believe is the difference between me and my opponent. One is for the national Democrat agenda, and one is for local control.
ADVOCATE: I think that will wrap it up.