ThinkTank Learning Interview with Assemblywoman Susan A. Bonilla
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Assemblywoman Susan A. Bonilla

Assemblywoman Susan A. Bonilla was first elected to the Assembly in November 2010, and represents California’s 14th Assembly District, which includes Contra Costa County and Solano County. She chairs the Assembly Business, Professions, and Consumer Protection Committee, and sits on the Assembly Health Committee and the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee. She also chairs the Assembly Select Committee on Increasing the Integration of STEM Education in California K-14 Schools.

Prior to serving as a public official, Susan was a high school English teacher in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Susan earned her B.A. in English from Azusa Pacific University and her teaching credential from CSU Los Angeles. Susan and her husband, John, reside in Concord. They have four daughters and three grandchildren.

February 2014

T – ThinkTank Learning
B – Assemblywoman Susan A. Bonilla

T: Thank you Assemblywoman Bonilla for agreeing to be interviewed for ThinkTank Learning’s monthly magazine. Tell us about your passion and dedication in improving science, technology, engineering and math education, commonly known as “STEM,” for California’s K-12 schools?

S: I believe developing students with strong STEM education backgrounds is essential for California to maintaining its competitive edge in the global economy. Last year, Assembly Speaker John Perez appointed me to chair the Select Committee on Increasing the Integration of STEM Education. This Select Committee is focused on developing policies, investments, and collaborations to increase the availability and strength of STEM in our state’s schools. The purpose of the Select Committee is to work with business and education leaders to increase STEM education in our schools, in order to better prepare students to meet the needs of a changing workforce.

We are off to a great start. Last fall, we held our first hearing, which was a great opportunity to discuss and preview the STEM Task Force Report, sponsored by the California Department of Education and developed by a team of higher education leaders, business and industry representatives, teachers, administrators, and others. We also have held several meetings with industry professionals and education experts to discuss best practices in utilizing more advanced technology equipment and teaching methods in the classrooms.

Over the next several months, this Select Committee will continue to host hearings focused on integrating STEM education and reaching out to school districts across the state to assess needs and gather input. I look forward to these discussions.

T: Would you tell us a little about your background and how that influences your views on international trade and business?

S: I was born in Taiwan and grew up there until I returned to the United States for university.
This gives me a unique appreciation of our relationship with Taiwan and China. California is positioned to increase our trade partnerships in Asia. As a legislator, I have been able to travel to both Taiwan and China and am encouraged that last year Governor Brown opened a trade office in China. I will continue to advocate for a California trade office in Taiwan, because a stronger business and educational partnership will help our California economy to continue to grow.

T: As the Chair of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, a position you held for the past three years, what do you feel were your most significant accomplishments in improving the state’s education system?

S: My colleagues and I made huge strides towards restoring some of the drastic cuts made to education during the economic downturn. We were very successful at the State Capitol last year in enacting the most significant education reforms in years, including the new “Local Control Funding Formula,” implementing the new Common Core state standards, and establishing a new testing system across the state.

We helped craft a compromise with the Governor on the Local Control Funding Formula that would provide more resources to our neediest students, while allowing funding levels at all schools to rise. This compromise was the result of numerous Subcommittee hearings with countless hours of testimony and public comment.

Most significantly, I was able to secure $1.25 billion in one-time funding to implement Common Core state standards by providing professional development for teachers and technology upgrades for our schools. This timely funding went out to school districts in two installments this fall. As a result, schools in Contra Costa County and Solano County, which includes my Assembly district, received over $47 million towards Common Core development, calculated at $200 per student, according to the state Department of Education. Also, schools nearby in San Francisco received over $10 million in funding.

I also made improving our education testing a high priority of mine and am proud that the Legislature and Governor approved Assembly Bill 484, which allows California to successfully transition to the next generation of school assessments. This bill suspends many of the statewide tests beginning this school year and fully implements new computer assessments based on the Common Core State Standards in English and math beginning in the 2014-15 school year. AB 484 allows more students to participate in the field test this spring, beginning the monumental shift to computer-based assessments. AB 484 will bring our testing system in line with new content standards and 21st century learning.

T: You have also been a leader in the Capitol in protecting early childhood education programs for our young learners. Can you please cite a few examples of where you have been instrumental?

S: These programs have suffered from severe budget cuts and are just beginning to recover. I am very proud of my effort in previous budget debates to save transitional kindergarten, which gives our youngest learners the foundations they need to succeed. We are already seeing positive results from the students who have benefited from this early start to their schooling.

I also authored Assembly Bill 274, which provides for greater use of technology in streamlining California’s early childhood education delivery system. This new law will allow child care providers to be paid via direct deposit, a practice that is common among many state agencies. It will also simplify attendance sheet requirements by allowing for monthly verification of care, instead of daily. And finally, AB 274 allows for the electronic storage of files. This bill improves the state’s child development system so that providers can target scarce resources towards serving needy families instead of filling out paperwork.

The federal government also needs to step up its role in promoting early childhood education. That is why I authored Assembly Joint Resolution 16 to urge Congress to enact President Obama’s budget proposal to increase funding for preschool and early education. There is a treasure trove of federal grants available for these programs but we need to improve the state’s ability to provide the necessary matching funds to win these grants. Therefore, AJR 16 also asks the State Superintendent to prepare a plan for making California more competitive for future funding increases to preschool and early learning programs.

T: Let’s move to the top of the education ladder – the rising cost of a college or university education. Why is it important for the state to invest in student financial assistance programs like Cal Grants and the new Middle Class Scholarship?

S: California must invest in higher education if we want to see economic growth. Companies need well-educated workforces, and a strong educational system helps California maintain a place of leadership in the nation and the world. This makes initiatives like the Cal Grant some of the most important investments California can make in terms of maintaining a successful economy.

Even though a Cal Grant will not cover full tuition, it still can offer encouragement to students dependent on financial aid and inspire hope that attending college is possible. Recognizing and rewarding the academic and leadership efforts of students, the Cal Grant gives students a chance to fulfill their dreams and pursue the career of their choice. Cal Grant represents the unified voice of Californians saying, “We want to invest in your future success.”

Unfortunately during recent budget cycles, Cal Grants have been on the chopping block for budget cuts. I believe this sends out a horrible message to our students that these grants are expendable. While I was Chair of the Education Finance Subcommittee, I was able to rally stakeholders and reduce the Governor’s original Cal Grants cut by 50 percent.

Beginning with the next school year, many students will have another source of higher education tuition assistance from the Middle Class Scholarship, which will be available to California residents who are undergraduate students at all CSU and UC campuses. Once fully implemented, a family with an annual income up to $150,000 will see their student fees reduced between 10 and 40 percent.

T: Finally, you have often mentioned that your success in championing stronger education curricula and winning more stable funding comes from your background as a high school English teacher. What inspired you to leave the classroom and start such a distinguished career in public service?

S:When the opportunity to run for an elected position first arrived, my initial reaction was to dismiss it. I’m so glad I didn’t because politics allows me to take the influence I had in the classroom to the next level. While I loved my role as a teacher, I can now impact entire families and statewide education policy from the unique perspective of someone trained in and passionate about education. Looking back, I see that you can’t plan your life completely. You must keep an open mind and be willing to take some risks.