Speaker after speaker called it a historic moment: parents, students, community activists, faith leaders, elected officials, educators and labor leaders coming together to forge a partnership based on a core set of principles, including providing all children with the opportunity to attend a high-quality, well-funded public school, giving those closest to the education process—school staff, students, parents and community members—a voice in education policy and practice, and assuring that school environments are safe, welcoming places where everyone feels respected and valued.
Held in Los Angeles on Oct. 4-6, the AFT Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference had—along with “The Principles that Unite Us,” which attendees embraced—an aura of possibility that AFT President Randi Weingarten underscored during her remarks at the opening session. “When we reclaim the promise of economic and social justice, we will remember this meeting as the start of that movement,” she said.
“The Principles that Unite Us,” a common vision for public education to ensure that all school districts are committed to providing all children with a high-quality public education, emerged from 12 town hall meetings organized by AFT locals and their community partners and held across the country over the past year. More than 3,000 people participated in those meetings. Several of the parents, community activists and AFT members and leaders who helped to organize the town halls also participated in the planning of the conference, which reflected the AFT’s focus on community engagement and represents an effort to create nationally coordinated state and local campaigns that can serve as echo chambers for reclaiming the promise of educational justice.
The opening day of the conference included a march and rally in support of immigrants’ rights. Chanting “up with education, down with deportation,” attendees marched to Pershing Square, where they heard from speakers such as Weingarten; Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center and a California Federation of Teachers vice president; and Remigio Willman, a teacher from Austin, Texas.
Weingarten and several other speakers at the rally, some of whom were undocumented students and adults, called upon President Obama to end the deportation of immigrants that is disrupting families. There should be a “moratorium on all deportation of DREAMers and their families,” Weingarten said.
Some speakers urged Republicans in Congress to allow a vote on the immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate. “The lack of immigration reform is taking away the very future of our children,” Willman said.
This year’s conference, which was held in collaboration with the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the National Education Association and Communities for Public Education Reform, was designed around “finding common ground and strengthening the public schools that 90 percent of our children attend,” Weingarten said.
Other speakers echoed that sentiment, including New York City parent activist Zakiyah Ansari, who urged attendees to “trust the intent of what we’re doing” and understand that “it’s for the betterment of all children,” and Philadelphia high school student Chynna Caballero, who said, “When you have adults and students together, we have power.”
A broad cross-section of civil rights, labor, community, youth and parent groups was represented at the conference, which drew close to 600 people. “When we stand together, our diversity is our strength. It’s the kind of strength that can transform a nation,” said Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, asserting that real change is almost always the direct result of disparate organizations coming together for the common good.
NEA Executive Director John Stocks said his union fully supported the goals of the conference. “I believe we are in a movement moment when it comes to the future of public education,” he said. This is about “whether we let schools be run by educators or allow for a corporate takeover of our schools.”
The Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform were among those that partnered with the AFT to plan the conference. John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, urged those gathered to take on policies that hurt public schools and the children they serve. “We have to begin to impact policies,” he said. “Whether that means promoting, strengthening or removing a policy.” Electoral power, he said, is essential to getting this work done.
While labor unions and community organizations share numerous goals, they may not always be on the same page, Alberto Retana, a community leader from Los Angeles, said. “We have to have real conversations between unions and the community so that we understand each others needs.”
Conference attendees heard several examples of places where a labor-community coalition has stood shoulder-to-shoulder against mean-spirited attacks on public schools and public services, gotten behind efforts to fully fund schools, and worked with elected leaders on pro-public education legislation and tax initiatives.
Youth United for Change Executive Director Andi Perez, a leader in the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, has been among those on the frontlines of the opposition to the funding cuts and school closings that have wreaked havoc on the quality of education in the City of Brotherly Love. The city and the state have been “starving our schools of resources” and then using the poor performance of some schools to justify turning more and more of them over to private contractors, Perez complained.
In his remarks, California Federation of Teachers president Joshua Pechthalt shared the good news about how a coalition of some 80 labor and community groups came together to spearhead the passage of a ballot initiative last November that is expected to raise billions in new tax revenue for California. The CFT was a prominent member of the coalition.
“The time was ripe for moving forward on progressive tax reform,” said Pechthalt, noting that state revenue losses stemming from the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which severely limited property tax increases, has resulted in significant cuts in state funding for education and other public services. Proposition 30, the 2012 tax measure backed by the coalition, won by a comfortable margin.
AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson applauded the focus on community engagement on the part of affiliates across the country. “Whatever we can do to build a movement for social justice, let’s make it happen,” said Johnson.
Johnson introduced a conference session featuring high school students who have become advocates for equity and justice in their schools and communities. “It is young people who push the envelope and are willing to take risks,” she said.
Neissa Fils, a student activist from New York City, moderated the student panel. “As young people, we are here to say our voice matters.”
“Let’s equip young people with the tools they need to lead,” added Tre Murphy, a 17-year-old from Baltimore. There were also students on the panel from Miami; Newark, N.J.; and New Orleans.
On the conference’s second day, participants came together by state and region to discuss what they could do back in their hometowns to advance “The Principles that Unite Us.” Suggestions ranged from advocating for equitable school funding and increasing access to early childhood education programs to ensuring that the community has a voice in proposed changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Many of the groups put in place plans for a Dec. 10 “day of action” in their cities and states.
The next day, dozens of organizations and individuals from across the country rose to add their names to the more than 100 organizations that had already endorsed the principles, which are crucial to reclaiming the promise of public education.
“More and more people are not talking about the achievement gap but are talking about the opportunity gap,” said Chicago community organizer Jitu Brown, who praised the AFT and the NEA for being “willing to stand side by side with parents and students.”
“Our children need educational warriors—not pretenders,” he asserted.
[Roger Glass/photos by Armando Arorizo]