Marin IJ: Pelosi talks about jumpstarting the middle class at COM

By Laith Agha

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi swung through Marin on Tuesday to deliver her party’s message on helping to lift the middle class.

A major piece of it resonated with the room full of educators she addressed.

“The education of the American people is not an issue,” Pelosi said. “It’s a value.”

That was a major theme of Pelosi’s pitch during a town hall meeting at the College of Marin in Kentfield to present the Middle Class Jumpstart campaign.

About 150 people also heard from Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, Marin Community Colleges District Superintendent David Wain Coon and San Rafael City Schools Superintendent Michael Watenpaugh on the importance of improving the educational system to strengthen the middle class.

Affordable education is one of three components of the Jumpstart effort. Pelosi, who began her opening statement by thanking the College of Marin for “contributing to the magic” of its recently deceased alum, comic-actor Robin Williams, hit on the other two corners of the Jumpstart triangle: better jobs in the United States and economic equality for women.

Democrats in Congress plan to propose bills to address these three targeted areas. The Paycheck Fairness Act and Healthy Families will be geared toward improving economic opportunities for women and “unleashing the power of women on the economy,” Pelosi said.

A trio of proposed bills would be geared toward boosting the economy, and two bills would be geared toward education issues — one focusing on refinancing students loans and the other to improve early childhood learning opportunities.

The panel hit on federal Pell grants, which helps cover the cost of education for low-income college students, and the high rate at which community college students default on student debt.

Coon said that half of College of Marin’s students are on financial aid, putting them in a category of students that struggle to pay off debt. He said 21 percent of community college students end up defaulting on their student loans.

The panel also explored closing achievement gaps between various demographic groups as a way to strengthen the economy.

There is nothing that reduces the deficit more than public education, Pelosi said.

The first place to start closing the achievement gap, the panelists said, was in early education.

Watenpaugh said that in his district roughly half of the incoming kindergarten students attended pre-school. Those who did not have been exposed to 350,000 less words than those who did.

The rate of pre-school attendance is lower in San Rafael’s Latino population, which makes up 60 percent of the school district, but only 32 percent of them attended pre-school

“The importance of pre-school cannot be understated,” Watenpaugh said. Each school year, “I go to every (first grade) class and ask who’s going to college? They all raise their hands. … They all know it’s something to aspire to.”

A discussion on matters of race and economic inequality delved into current issues gripping the country, including U.S. border issues and the racially charged controversy in Ferguson, Missouri, where residents are outraged over the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man by a white police officer.

“Clearly we’re nowhere close to a post-racial America,” Huffman said. “There is still a lot of racism in this country. And not just in Ferguson. It’s in Washington, too. The personal animus presented to our president is unlike anything we could have imagined the night he was sworn in.”

After the session, Huffman said the Jumpstart message applies to Marin just as much as it does to the rest of the country.

“Don’t assume because we’re in this affluent county, we don’t have a tremendous achievement gap,” the congressman said.

Along with improving educational opportunities, another part of the “entire picture” of improving the middle class is raising the minimum wage, Huffman said.

“Living wages are needed in communities like Marin,” he said.