by Félix Pérez
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Jessica Fitzwater doesn’t allow her political activism to interfere with her responsibility and passion toward her students. But Fitzwater makes it clear that all educators should engage in politics — whether at the local, state or federal level — because public education stands at a critical decision point in our nation’s history: whether to continue as a central pillar of democracy available to all or be converted into a privatized, for-profit enterprise that views students as commodities.
Fitzwater’s belief is not uncommon among educators; her willingness to act on that belief sets her apart, however.
That’s why she was chosen yesterday by thousands of educators from across the nation as the NEA Political Activist of the Year.
Asked what message she would like educators and supporters of public education to take from her recognition, Fitzwater, a music teacher at Oakdale Elementary School and the daughter of a special education teacher, said:
I hope people will see that we have no choice but to be politically active. I know a lot of people are turned off by politics, but we must be involved to give teachers and students a voice. Elected officials need to hear from us what their decisions mean to Mrs. Smith in the classroom.
Fitzwater recently took her political involvement to another level. She is running for a seat on the Frederick County Council, her first foray as a candidate for public office. Not surprisingly, full funding of public education tops her platform. She points to flat funding for Frederick County schools over the last six years and the resulting cuts in programs and departure of highly qualified teachers.
It’s not lost on Fitzwater, 30 years old, that many in her generation have become disaffected from politics. To them she says, “I want to show people my age that they can get involved and make a difference. We can lead the way for change.”
Fitzwater emphasizes that political engagement comes in many forms. It can involve attending school board meetings, sending emails to elected officials, attending lobby days with other educators, knocking on doors on behalf of candidates who support public education, volunteering in a phone bank, educating colleagues and friends about the connection between students and education and politics, or, as in her case, running for office.
“We can all play a role in the critical issues revolving around education reform and advocating for students, schools, and teachers,” says Fitzwater.