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Jamaal Bowman Poised to Swell Ranks of Former Educators in Congress

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 26, 2020 3 min read
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Jamaal Bowman, who until recently served as a public school principal in New York City and is running for Congress on a promise to create a “New Deal” for education, is close to officially pulling off a big upset win and joining several prominent ex-educators on Capitol Hill.

Bowman has declared victory over incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., in the race to be the Democratic nominee in New York state’s 16th congressional district during what became a high-profile intra-party contest. While election analysts have also said he’s won the primary election based on his substantial lead in the initial vote count, Engel has not conceded, and the race has not been officially called by election officials.

The ex-principal of the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School in the Bronx won the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the Justice Democrats, and other progressive individuals and groups.

In fact, Bowman told us in an interview earlier this year that he viewed “AOC” as a political role model. And key elements of his education platform match what several Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 cycle proposed. Bowman has proposed quadrupling federal aid for disadvantaged students—a plan also put forward by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., when she ran for president—and to ban for-profit management groups from running charter schools. He’s also an opponent of standardized testing.

However, he was the target of criticism not too long ago for linking tests to slavery and Jim Crow even though his school touted results on those exams.

During our January interview, when we asked him about what federal officials don’t understand about schools, he responded with a “long, pained laugh” and then said: “They don’t understand children. They don’t understand the miracles that teachers and school leaders make every day in dire circustmances.”

If Bowman officially secures the nomination and wins the November election—in which a Democrat is heavily favored—it would be the second time in two years that a Black person with a significant background in education won a seat in Congress to represent the tri-state area. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, chalked up an upset of her own in the 2018 election to represent Connecticut’s 5th congressional district.

Bowman would not be the first former principal elected to Congress. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., a member of the House education committee, used to be an elementary school principal in Florida.

In addition to Hayes and Wilson, here are a few other former educators—think K-12 and higher education—on Capitol Hill:

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Senate education committee’s chairman used to be the president of the University of Tennessee.
  • Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate education committee’s ranking Democrat, is a former preschool teacher.
  • Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the House education committee’s ranking Republican and former chairwoman, used to be the president of a community college.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a member of the Senate education committee, used to be a law school professor and had a brief spell as a K-12 teacher too.
  • Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., a member of the House education committee, used to be a public school teacher in California.

Bowman’s background in education didn’t stop American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten from endorsing Engel, who is the chairman of the House foreign relations committee.

During a speech late Tuesday, when Bowman held a significant lead over Engel as votes were still being counted, he discussed the impact of poverty on both children and families in the context of his work as a principal.

“I served in that role as an educator with pride and passion and dignity, and tried my best to do everything that I could to uplift the lives of every child that I taught and every child that I served,” Bowman said.

Photo courtesy of Jamaal Bowman’s congressional campaign

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