After a year in office, state Sen. Sean Bowie has become accustomed to fielding questions, but the eighth-graders at Altadena Middle School last week still kept him on his toes.
What was his position on net neutrality? one asked.
How are you going to get more money for education? queried another.
What’s the favorite part of your job? wondered another.
In some ways, Bowie was partially answering that third question by standing right in front of the three eighth-grade social studies classes.
After 51 weeks as a state senator, he was completing a personal mission he had set for himself not long after being sworn in: visiting every one of the 45 public and public charter schools in his Legislative District 18, which covers all of Ahwatukee and parts of Chandler, Tempe and Mesa.
“I place a high priority on these visits,” he said, noting that he partly wanted to see first-hand what students were doing, how teachers and administrators were coping under the financial constraints that Arizona schools have been confronting for several years and to thank the faculties and staff for their hard work.
Since he started his campaign early last year, the freshman senator has consistently made education funding his top priority.
He started off the final segment of his year-long tour the way he handled the other 44 – meeting with the principal.
And Altadena Principal James Martin was delighted to host him.
The 20-year Kyrene School District veteran employee, who has been principal at the 1,100-student school for about a year and a half, had no particular agenda with the senator as Bowie queried him on topics ranging from enrollment trends to programs.
The morning tour started with the studio used by students to craft a daily morning report to the student body.
Some students hovered over laptops in a dimly lit classroom while others looked through a large window into a brightly lit room where three students stood in front of a camera telling their classmates via a school-wide network the news of the day at Altadena, from who won the intramural baseball game the previous night to preparations for the upcoming winter break.
Then came the gauntlet of three social studies classes, and it was clear many of the students in each had given considerable thought to what they wanted to ask their special guest.
Bowie began each session with an admission that he went to Pueblo Middle School and then to Mountain Pointe High. Altadena is largely a feeder for rival Desert Vista High.
The students didn’t seem to care all that much. They were focused instead on the rest of his introductory remarks – and getting answers to their well-thought-out questions.
“The main reason why I wanted to visit all the schools and talk to the principals and teachers is that I want them to know there are advocates for them at the state Capitol,” Bowie explained. “We really want to get more support for our teachers as well as for our schools.”
During each Q&A, students’ questions reflected as much an awareness of government as it affects them as it did an interest in what was involved in the job of being a state senator.
On the latter, Bowie explained how he approached most of the approximate 600 bills that came his way this year.
He talked about spending many weekends in his Capitol office, reading every piece of legislation and often supplementing his reading with viewing videos of committee hearings.
And when it comes to voting, he stressed, he keeps his constituents’ desires in mind instead of party politics, noting that he has taken flack from Democratic party members for supporting a bill that they opposed but that “I knew my constituents would favor.”
That practice prompted the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting to note that Bowie voted with Republican senators more than any other Democratic lawmaker.
Ultimately, he added, voting was “the most stressful part of my job because you have a lot of competing interests.”
On issues, many students were interested in matters related to funding, while others waded into areas – such as net neutrality – that prompted Bowie to explain the differences in focus between Congress and the state Legislature.
Asked what the most controversial bill he voted on was, Bowie replied that it involved the fight over the expansion of the voucher system for private schools. “I was very opposed to that because I know it would have a very negative impact on schools like Altadena.”
And his favorite part of his job?
“It’s being out here in the community, visiting schools and local businesses and talking to people in my district.”
Bowie said he learned a lot in his school tours and that he would like to do it again in 2019.
As for next year, he has a different tour in mind: knocking on as many as 13,000 doors in LD 18 to help him win a second term.