Tuesday, U.S. Rep Derek Kilmer experienced something rare and wonderful in the life of a member of Congress: He met with a group of diverse and thoughtful constituents who asked tough questions, listened with care and, occasionally, challenged him.
Washington's U.S. Representative from the 6th District was visiting Mount Tahoma High School when this miracle of civil civics occurred in a government class.
High school administrators had invited him to see the school, meet with Communities in Schools (CIS) reps, elected officials and students.
In the CIS equation, Kilmer represented community members investing their time in students' future. He's had practice with that, serving on the CIS board in Gig Harbor, but he wanted to hear how the program was working at Mount Tahoma.
Very well, principal Kevin Kannier told him.
“Our test scores are improving dramatically,” Kannier told Kilmer, Tacoma School Board member Karen Vialle and Pierce County Councilmember Connie Ladenburg. “We are the only Tacoma school in which the numbers are improving in all four sets.”
CIS is a big factor in the progress at multiple levels, Kannier said.
Friday afternoons, it offers students backpacks filled with a weekend's worth of food.
It helps students make up course credits with Apex computer learning classes.
It connects students to volunteer opportunities that teach them that they are valuable, and valued, members of the community.
It encourages mentors so students can develop a connection with at least one caring adult.
“Every child needs to know at least one person who cares about them,” Kannier said. “These are wrap-around services that don't exist at Wilson or Stadium.”
CIS and Mount Tahoma also collaborate in bringing speakers and incentives to the school. That's how Kilmer came to that government classroom. The room itself should be an inspiration to those who think that a government is a simple organism. Assignments on the whiteboard and discussion topics on the bulletin boards challenge students to look at issues from every angle, discern the facts clouded by rhetoric and appreciate that civil debate can result in better policy.
Kilmer nodded to that last point when he introduced himself to the students as a rookie congressman with an interest in economics.
“There is way too much focus on partisanship,” he said of his new workplace.
Then he bowed to questions.
What, the students wanted to know, will fix the economy?
“There are no silver bullets to get this economy cooking. It's more like silver buckshot,” Kilmer answered.
Invest in great training for the workforce. Build and repair the infrastructure. Fight for the projects that reflect the values of the constituents.
“What's the most frustrating part of the job,” asked another student.
“A lot of time and energy is focused on partisan bull,” Kilmer answered. “It's a lot more productive to not get frustrated but to get motivated. Over eight years I knocked on 52,000 doors, and I heard that people just want us to stop moving backward and start moving forward.”
“Do you believe college is a make-or-break in impacting the community?” a student asked.
“Not necessarily,” Kilmer responded. “But more and more jobs demand some college. The more education you get, the less likely you will be to be unemployed.”
High school drop-outs are more likely than grads to land in prison., he added. “I would like the community to invest more in education on the front end and less in prisons on the back end.”
Programs like College Bound, College Success Foundation, Head Start, Communities in Schools, and adequate funding from the national to the local level push that.
The students asked on:
What about the budget?
Look for results. Cut or fix programs that don't work, and fund those that do. Build tax policy that benefits middle-income workers and does not give breaks to the super-wealthy.
“If you look at budgets as a reflection of our values, we are not living up to our values,” Kilmer said.
Was that partial government shut down worth it? “It was really stupid,” Kilmer responded. It hurt people, and it hurt the economy.
“Is it true you did not take your salary during it?” a young woman asked.
Yes, Kilmer replied. “I said that if Congress is not going to do its job, I am not going to get paid.”
That is how it works in the students' world. That is what his constituents should expect of him, no matter where they stand on the political map. And that is where he and all the students agreed.