Weingarten: Schools key to democracy

PAI Staff Writer

AFT PRESIDENT RANDI WEINGARTEN, in a major speech, links schools and democracy.
– PAI file photo.

Washington (PAI) – Schools are key to democracy, but are beset by staff shortages, culture wars, underfunding, and political efforts to divide parents from teachers and destroy public schools, Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten says.

In a major speech March 28 at the National Press Club, Weingarten declared “others are trying to drive a wedge in that connection” between teachers and parents and we, as a nation, “need to deepen it,” she explained.

“Our public schools shouldn’t be pawns for politicians’ ambitions and divisions…Public schools are cornerstones, but some are attacking them with sledgehammers.

“It’s an extremist scheme by a very vocal minority. It’s limiting our effort to do what we need to do—educating 50 million children.”

The often-outspoken New York City civics teacher didn’t hesitate to single out foes of public schools, and therefore of the education that prepares kids to participate fully in democracy, by name.

They included Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), Trump ideologue Steve Bannon — who said on his podcast school boards “should be the next target” – the right-wing, Otis and Bradley Foundations and former Trump Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, whom AFT and other teachers’ unions opposed for that post in 2017.

The foundations and DeVos “have poured millions in” to their drive to wreck public schools, Weingarten said.

Omitted, except by inference: the House Republicans who oppose public schools, and other institutions, and call the tune for the new, narrow GOP majority in the House. Weingarten pledged AFT would keep fighting their planned budget cuts.

But their larger agenda, she exclaimed, is to “destroy public education as we know it” and democracy with it, by crippling teachers’ ability to teach and students’ ability to collectively learn, especially about the U.S., its greatness and its flaws, its history and its multiculturalism and how to actively participate in a pluralistic nation.

Weingarten spoke against a dismaying backdrop, as she elaborated, of 400,000 teachers, beset by such stresses, leaving the profession annually and of improvements in federal education funding—approved as anti-pandemic measures—under dual threat. Conditions, physical, professional and emotional, are so bad for teachers, she said, that “parents say they love their kids’ teachers, but they don’t want their kids to grow up to be teachers.”

One threat is from the increasing number of states, all but a few Republican-run, who are diverting public taxpayer money, via vouchers, from public to private schools. The 29 states and counting don’t include Florida – yet.

There, DeSantis, who has made public schools and teachers a particular target, signed legislation the day before diverting $4 billion in state aid away from public schools to private schools.

The other threat is the foes’ aim to destroy democracy by destroying trust in public schools, Weingarten declared. Their tactics include curriculum control, campaigning against teaching civil rights and “wokeness” and demonizing students of color and particularly LGTB students.

“It’s a hostile conservative agenda” against public schools, said AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, who preceded Weingarten to the podium.

“Our public schools shouldn’t be pawns for politicians’ divisions and ambitions….A great nation chooses freedom, and opportunity and equality and democracy, and we are a great nation. We deserve no less,” Weingarten said.

Public school foes also include Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, though Weingarten didn’t name him. Instead, she was preceded to the stage beforehand parents and teachers from the Houston Independent School District, which Abbott just seized control of, effective July 1.

The three parents and teachers described the takeover, including a prior state seizure of one daughter’s elementary school. Test scores declined and attention waned afterwards, the parent said.

Weingarten spent most of her speech describing the problems and pressures schools and democracy face, but also offered solutions, and they weren’t just about money, though that helps.

They included making public schools wraparound centers where kids can not only learn but be in a safe and sheltered environment, complete with meals and social services. There’s another threat to that, too, said Weingarten: Gun violence.

At the start of her speech, Weingarten asked for a minute of silence in memory of the three students and three staffers a shooter killed in Nashville the day before. She then reiterated AFT’s demand for further gun controls, notably a complete ban on assault weapons.

Solutions also include innovative programs, many of them negotiated in union contracts, for things like paid parental leave community-wide—an initiative in Kansas City, Mo. That lets parents take time off to come to parent-teacher conferences.

And it also includes legal defense of students and teachers under assault from ideologues. So AFT has not only established a fund to pay for that, but it’s just established a toll-free hotline for pressured staffers, students and even parents to call: 1-888-873-7227.

“It’s a place to call if you’ve been told to remove a book, or you can’t teach honestly and appropriately” or are “being targeted to score political points,” she said.

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