Raised by working-class parents, Senator Eric P. Lesser knows well the value of hard work.
“My sisters and I were raised to value family, hard work, and helping others,” Lesser recalls, noting that these are the same value she tries to instill in his own children.
A life-long public school student, Lesser has firm memories of his educational track.
“I remember playing on the jungle gym in Blueberry Hill School in Longmeadow and then going to Williams Middle and then Longmeadow High School,” he says “It was incredible and I got a great education.”
In addition to his academics, Lesser recalls life lessons and connections garnered in the public school system.
“I was lucky to have great teachers and classmates who I still keep in touch with,” he says, noting that the current Superintendent of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District was a former teacher of his. “It’s a community that really supports its school system and its teachers.”
One of the greatest lessons Lesser learned in the public system was that “individuals who care deeply about their community can improve it.” That is why, when a recession threatened the system that had taught him so much, Lesser led a coalition to pass a budget override to protect schools. While the first vote failed, Lesser and his team stuck with the fight and, after reaching out to every parent in the district, they prevailed.
“It was an early lesson that people who care for their community can change it and work to improve it,” Lesser maintains, “and how important it is for a community to invest in and feel close to their school system and vice versa. You have to have community support or schools and the schools need to support the needs of their community.”
Lesser has also learned that the support is not uni-directional. In fact, many of the teachers whose jobs he helped protect have voted for and supported him in his various campaigns.
“Mark Bail was my debate coach and he is also a selectman in Granby,” Lesser says. “My fourth grade teacher, Marie Pratt, is now principal of my old school and was recently named a principal of the year!”
While working for Congressman Richard Neal and Senator Ted Kennedy, Lesser saw even more evidence of the power of people to change policies and practices. After studying government at Harvard and graduating from Harvard Law School, Lesser became a campaign staffer for President Obama.
“My job was to...keep track of his luggage,” Lesser laughs, noting that he eventually landed a seat on Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Among the political priorities Lesser holds dear are improving education and infrastructure in order to open opportunities for all.
“I was always motivated by the idea that, as messy and frustrating as the political process might be, it is ultimately the only system we have for collectively solving our challenges,” Lesser explains. “We need good people to be involved, and, as difficult as it can be, you cannot give up on it.”
When asked how younger people can be encouraged to become involved, Lesser observes that the “testing regime” has “diminished…the ability for students to get that holistic education on subjects that are not considered foundational,” such as civics. “I think there is something lost when we do not teach those things.”
And while testing remains a major issue, Lesser remains optimistic about today’s students because he sees them as “more engaged in the world around them” than any prior generation.
“I saw that on my on campaign,” he recalls. “We had huge numbers of young people who volunteered and who were very knowledgeable and enthusiastic to learn more.”
In fact, Lesser says, “getting the chance to meet all of those students and to learn from them was one of the best parts of my campaign!”
As he is so impressed by today’s students and as he remains such an ardent supporter of public education, Lesser hopes to find more ways to keep our nation-leading intellectual property in the Commonwealth.
“We suffer from a bit of a brain drain,” he observes. “We have tremendous institutions here, but many people leave here after being educated here and that has hurt our economic opportunities.”
That is why, for Lesser, education lies at the center of every strategy to improve quality of life.
“We know the jobs of the future will require top-notch education,” he suggests, “just as jobs do today. Someone graduating...today is expected to know more about the world and how it works, so we need to focus on and invest in education in order to stay competitive and continue to grow…. There is no institution that has the transformative power and the ability to provide upward mobility for everybody the way public schools do!”