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Doug Robinson: Former lunch lady Lily Garcia goes to Washington to run for the NEA

Published: Monday, Feb. 17 2014 2:10 p.m. MST

Bangerter proposed a small tax rebate for citizens because the state had a surplus of money. Teachers were angry. For years they had been told there wasn’t enough money to provide more funding for schools, while teachers were buying supplies out of their own pockets and coping with oversized classes. The governor’s response threw gas on the fire: He told teachers to take two aspirin and they would feel better in the morning. Teachers around the state were outraged by this seemingly cavalier remark. The Utah Education Association organized a rally at Liberty Park, and they put the Teacher of the Year on stage.

Lily showed up with her guitar. This caused some curious looks, but then she augmented her speech with a little song she wrote for the occasion that she called “I’m-a-Teacher-and-I-got-to-Work-in-Utah Blues.” It was a hit, and she and her guitar were a natural photo op. The story and photo went national. Lily received calls from the national press asking about the protest, and the UEA encouraged her. She was the perfect spokeswoman — she wasn’t on the UEA bargaining team, she was a teacher, and a good one; she also was well-spoken, funny, snarky, confident and musical. She became ubiquitous on local TV shows and the evening news.

“I’ve always been a big mouth in the best sense,” she says. “That’s my story. I’m outspoken. Sometimes I need to tone it down.”

The furor over Bangerter faded away, but not Lily. She was encouraged to run for president of the UEA and won the office as a write-in candidate. She was a teacher, not a politician, and her message was genuine. As she puts it: “I was not so strident or shrill. Like a good teacher, I educated. I would say, 'I think you want to do good things for our schools and here’s what you do.' It got a good response. People would listen to me even if they disagreed.”

Once, she was given an audience with Bangerter, just the two of them in his office, without advisers and bureaucrats. She told him what it was like to have 39 sixth-graders in a classroom. He asked her if she realized how much money it would cost to reduce each class in the state. She told him to reduce class size one grade at a time, starting with first grade. She had done the math for him and showed him the breakdown of costs. They discussed the plan further.

As Lily recalls: “The governor looked at the (costs) and said, ‘And we’d get credit for doing this?’ I told him: ‘It would be front page. It’s your proposal and you listened to teachers and parents.’ He made the proposal. They got to fourth grade (in subsequent years), but like most things the Legislature starts, it wasn’t continued. But you have to give the governor credit. He did it because it was the right thing for the kids.”

Eskelsen’s rise in the education world continued. Elected to the nine-member NEA executive committee in 1996. NEA secretary-treasurer in 2002. Vice president in 2008. There was one break: In 1998, she was urged to run for Congress and took a leave of absence. She was the Democratic nominee and ultimately lost to Merrill Cook, but she garnered 45 percent of the vote against a Republican incumbent in Utah, a feat in itself.

“I came in second,” she likes to say.

She went to Washington to work for the NEA and hit the ground running. She has served in official advisory roles for Hispanic education for two presidents. She wrote a humor column on parenting that was published by 22 newspapers, and continues to write a blog (“Lily’s Blackboard”). She has spoken at hundreds of education events in virtually every state. She has been quoted in a number of magazines and appeared on several national TV shows. Only rarely does she bring the guitar along these days (you can see her perform on YouTube), and her song about “No Child Left Behind” was a hit (“If we have to test their butts off, there will be no child’s behind left.”)

During the six years she served on the NEA’s executive committee, she taught at Orchard again for a few years and was a part-time teacher at a homeless shelter and later at the Christmas Box House. But mostly she has devoted herself to the NEA.

“None of us got into teaching thinking, ‘And then my next step I’ll get involved in the union!’ ” she says. “Almost all my colleagues have a story about how they got involved. Inevitably, it was seeing someone treated unfairly, or the government or legislature doing something that hurts our ability to do our job with our students. Who can do something about this? We’re not going to wait for the politicians or the superintendent.”

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