Rep. Donna Howard has a long-standing dedication to education that continues in the Capitol today. This is how she leads Texas.
By Anna Lassmann
Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, got her start in politics after she was urged to run for her local school board. Working on behalf of her children and their school sparked a passion for education and school finance that persists today. This is how she leads Texas.
Her mornings: “Right now, we’re having meetings starting at 7:30 in the morning, so my morning is really trying to read what I can before I come to the Capitol to not only prepare for the hearing that we’re getting ready to have, but also to at least have a cursory look at the news because oftentimes, there are things that do impact what we’re talking about in our hearings. So, my mornings before I get here, besides just getting dressed and ready, are reading and preparing.”
Her passion for school finance:“Well, part of it is I was on a school board in the ’90s and got interested in the area of school finance in particular when I was on the school board and continued to work on that issue when I was no longer on the school board. … The fact that I was assigned to the education subcommittee of appropriations for all four of these sessions…has just continued the focus that I’ve had on this. Public education is what people point to as the main thing we are tasked with as doing as a state; the Constitution requires a public-education system. It’s something that impacts every Texan. It’s something that impacts every community. We are fortunate enough in Texas to have a strong economy. We have some challenges. We have some underserved areas. We have changing demographics with a growing population. … All of these things combined mean that we have to be very focused on what we’re doing and make sure that we’re appropriately and adequately funding education so that we don’t lose the ground that we have and hopefully can actually improve the lives of all Texans.”
Her introduction to politics: “When I was getting more involved in what was going on with [my children’s] school, I started attending school-board meetings and paying more attention to how the decisions were being made, and in doing that, eventually, some folks asked me, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and run for school board?’ And apparently, growing up in my generation, I had to be asked rather than just offering myself, and I’m glad to see more people realize that they can say they can do things and offer themselves for those jobs. But I was asked to consider it and I decided that it was something that I wanted to do, and I got elected and realized…I had found something that I really cared a lot about. It really filled a passion in me and working in that policy-making arena…I was hooked.”
Her view on women in the Legislature:“I think that the classic saying is what Ann Richards said…that you have to be able to do it ‘backwards and in high heels.’ I think women often, at least most of us, perceive that we have to work harder to demonstrate that we can do what has traditionally been thought of as something that has been populated more by men. There’s a work ethic that you find among women that is beyond what may be expected of others. … There are some who are realizing that maybe they do need to be paying more attention to this. So, I think we are seeing some shift there. There was always this old saying that ‘If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.’ Where I like to see that now…is if you’re not at the table, then bring your own chair; don’t wait to be asked. If you want to be part of the decision-making that’s going around the table, then you need to make sure you’re at that table, and if they’re not inviting you and not providing space for you, then you find a way to provide your own space and show up. It’s a lot of just taking more of an assertive stance on, ‘Yes, I do have something to say,’ and, ‘Yes, I do have a voice and I’m going to make sure that I have opportunities to use it.’ I think that’s where a lot of women over at the Legislature are right now, and we’re just making our voice heard.”
Her nursing background: “I think my nursing education was one of the best ways to prepare to be a legislator of just about anything I can think of. Nurses are educated and trained in implementing what we call nursing care plans. … And also, nurses, by and large, are multidisciplinary and work in an interdisciplinary way with a team. So, with all those things being said, I think the preparation I had being a nurse is exactly the kind of skill set that I need to work in the Legislature. Beyond that, because there’s 150 of us in the House and we all have different backgrounds and experiences, we look to different people who have had a unique experience related to all the different things we’re called upon to vote on. … It’s given me the opportunity to influence policy in the area of health care and nursing by the virtue of that being my background.”
Her family support: “I’m fortunate to have three adult children who I love very much and who have lots of different life experience that I draw upon in the work that I do. And now I have four grandchildren and one more on the way, and a lot of what I do is motivated by making the world a better place for them and for their future. Certainly, it’s challenging to work at the Legislature, and having your family support is critical to being able to be on call and to go to the myriad…things that we go to, to have to be responsive to those who have legitimate needs that need to be addressed that mainly you have to set aside what the family is doing and focus instead on your constituents. Those choices are less difficult for me because I live in Austin; I don’t have to travel away from my family to come to the Capitol. But that being said, that kind of means when you’re in Austin, you’re always on as well. But my family has been very supportive and encouraging, so I’m very grateful.”
Her love of running: “I typically have been a runner on Town Lake. Of late, I haven’t had the opportunity to go out there, which I’m probably going to regret when Capitol 10,000 comes about because there’s going to be a legislative team that’s going to run. So, I’m signed up to do it with them whether I’ve been running or not.”