Jamaal Bowman, Bronx principal and vocal opt-out supporter, launches primary challenge for Congress

Jamaal Bowman has been a teacher, guidance counselor, dean, and, for the last decade, the founding principal of a well-regarded middle school in the Bronx.

Now, he wants to add a line to his resume: Congressman.

Bowman announced Tuesday a primary challenge for New York’s 16th Congressional district, pitting him against 16-term incumbent and powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). Bowman isn’t the only educator mounting a challenge: Andom Ghebreghiorgis, who has worked as a special education teacher in New York City, is also running.

Though the odds may seem long, Bowman has the backing of the Justice Democrats, who are hoping for another upset after successfully supporting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s insurgent bid for office.

Bowman is counting, in part, on his 20 years of experience in education to appeal to voters. Long before throwing his hat in the political rink, Bowman started The Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, or CASA, a middle school that has produced notable academic results despite serving mostly disadvantaged students.

He has been a vocal supporter of the opt-out movement boycotting state testing, especially within the black community. Bowman has also pushed for discipline reform, favoring restorative practices such as mediation in his school, rather than suspensions, which are disproportionately meted out, city data shows, to students of color. He’s also a big believer in the importance high-quality, early childhood care and education. A favorite word of Bowman is ‘holistic’ — an approach he likes to see in schools and one he’d like to see in government.

“What I wish Congress would do more of is take a holistic view of policy overall,” he said.

We caught up with Bowman the day he launched his campaign to talk about what inspired him to run for office, the work of principals, and what schools and students need to thrive. Here’s what he had to say.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What pushed you to run for Congress?

I’ve been in education for 20 years now, and I’ve been a school principal for 10 years. I’ve worked with amazing students who have unlimited potential. It’s just that, unfortunately — because of bad policy, because of a lack of resources, because of a lack of opportunities presented to them in their communities — they don’t get a chance to realize their unlimited potential.

When I hear about mass shootings, when I hear about kids overdosing on drugs, when I see my own students who have had their parents deported because of recent immigration policy, or some of their parents were murdered in the streets — it’s all of those issues combined that pushed me to take this step.

How has being a principal prepared you for campaigning and, possibly, public office?

Working in the New York City Department of Education, that’s the most vast and dense bureaucracy there is in this country. I’ve had to continually navigate political space within the department as well as build relationships with parents and students and teachers — and build coalitions towards a mission to transform education and to really impact the lives of students and families.

I’ve done that work throughout my time as an educator and especially throughout my time as a middle school principal. I challenge any congressperson to run a middle school in the Bronx effectively. Let’s see how well they do.

There has been a lot of buzz around teacher activism and teachers running for office, but not around principals — how come?

I haven’t heard of other principals running at this time. They should though. One of the problems with Congress is it’s not diverse. You have a lot of corporate actors, you have a lot of lawyers. But you don’t have enough educators. You don’t have enough nurses. You don’t have enough doctors. You don’t have enough people who are on the ground working with the community each and every day, and that’s exactly what our Congress needs.

What education policies do you hope to change or support?

Universal childcare is huge. We need to make sure of two things: One, that parents don’t have to rush back to work after having a child, that they get more opportunity for parental leave, specifically maternity leave. And, two, if parents do want to get back to work, that their children are taken care of by highly trained and highly paid, skilled early childhood educators. Right now, in early childhood education, educators are paid small wages in comparison to teachers who work in the K-12 system.

In addition, we need to end annual high-stakes testing. Such testing, particularly in grades 3-8, has created a test prep curriculum that doesn’t meet the holistic needs of children. We’re only testing in math and English. We’re ignoring science. We’re ignoring civics. We’re ignoring the arts. We’re ignoring physical education. We’re ignoring sports. These other subjects have been sanctioned out of public schools.

Finally, we need a more progressive pedagogy overall — Montessori, Reggio Emilia-based education in early childhood sections, and project-based learning in grades 6 through 12.

How could you as a congressman support those things?

The Every Student Succeeds Act is a federal policy that states and local jurisdictions have to follow. So I would fight and do everything I can from a congressional perspective to make sure that policy is changed to meet the needs of the whole child.

Secondly and more importantly, this has to be a national movement and coalition, building towards educating the whole child. It’s about making sure my district is engaged and inspired, and that we’re connecting with communities throughout the country, focused on what our kids need. We have over 15 million kids living in poverty right now. How are they ever going to reach their full potential if we don’t deal with the issues of poverty, and the stress and trauma associated with that?

Pre-K teachers in New York City are currently fighting for pay that’s equal to their K-12 peers. Do you support this fight, and if so, how would ensure better pay for those teachers?

Oh, absolutely. Early childhood educators should get paid the same amount and have the same benefits as K-12 educators. Many begin their careers in early childhood, but because they don’t earn a livable wage and are not able to live on their own and support their families, they end up transitioning out of early childhood teaching.

So it’s unstable at the early childhood phase, and our kids, particularly our most vulnerable kids, need more support there.

Also, this is a gender issue because many early childhood educators are women, and they are being underpaid. That is unacceptable.

What is something you wish lawmakers better understood about education?

We need to understand that everything is interconnected with education. When you talk about environmental justice, when we talk about criminal justice, when we talk about voting for a war in Iraq as my opponent did — all of these things are brought to the doorsteps of teachers and educators everyday. So what I wish Congress would do more of is take a holistic view of policy overall, particularly policy when it comes to education.

In 2001, my opponent voted for the No Child Left Behind Act, for example, with the goal of making all students literate by 2015. We didn’t reach that goal. All we did was privatize public schools and weaponize standardized testing within the public school system, which disempowered teachers and stopped them from meeting the needs of their students.

If we took a more community approach, where we’re nurturing families and understanding child development and brain development begins in utero, and making sure that healthcare is working with education to provide a holistic support network for families from conception to careers, if we had that perspective — not just with education but with all issues — I think we can implement transformative change and transformative policy in our schools.

If you don’t win office, what else do you hope your campaign can accomplish?

If I can inspire more children of color, children from my background, people who are currently disengaged, if I can inspire them to get more involved and get more engaged and ask more questions, and go to more meetings, and become active members in our democracy, those would be huge wins.

And because my district is so segregated and diverse, if we can begin to build coalitions between Scarsdale and Baychester, or Rye and Edenwall, or Riverdale and Co-Op City, if we could build coalitions and work towards higher wages for everyone, rent control, housing, fighting against environmental injustices, fighting for racial justice — if we could work together to do those things, my campaign is a win no matter what happens.

New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, and the city is currently engulfed in a debate over how to address that. Should lawmakers support integration efforts, and if so, how?

Yes, we should, but we can’t integrate schools without integrating communities. Our communities are segregated. So in terms of how — it’s about leadership, it’s about vision, it’s about being bold.

It’s about not being afraid to be criticized. It’s about dealing with issues of race, and class, and gender very directly and very honestly — and having uncomfortable, difficult conversations, and uplifting each other as we learn together. Then, hopefully, within the next generation, we’ll be able to live within more integrated communities.

You’ve been an active supporter of the opt-out movement. Why did you join that cause?

Focusing specifically on standardized tests to drive improvements in public education is the wrong route to take in terms of improving what’s happening in our schools. Especially if we’re not dealing with issues of poverty and we’re not dealing with issues related to the supports that families need.

We haven’t focused on curriculum. We haven’t focused on teacher recruitment and development. We haven’t focused on equity and implicit bias. We’re not aligned to what the needs are for the 21st century. We need a workforce that is prepared to work within a Green New deal economy. But our curriculum right now in K-12 is not aligned to the needs of our economy.

So parent refusal of the state test is a way for them to exercise their voice, their rights, take back the power that was taken from them by the federal government, and it’s an act of civil disobedience that’s been necessary. And it’s been transformative in New York State and put a moratorium on the Common Core standards and forced the government to pivot away from overusing tests and teacher evaluations.