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Faith leaders, AFT reaffirm mission to reclaim the promise

The issues and concerns that bind the AFT and the faith community were on full display during the AFT-hosted Faith in Action national briefing on public education in Philadelphia, May 7-9. Meeting under the theme of "Remembering the Brown Decision: Reclaiming the Promise," faith leaders from across the country reaffirmed their commitment to working with AFT affiliates and members on a range of issues that impact the quality of life for children, families and communities, including voting rights, school closings, immigration reform and teacher diversity.

"Let's work together to reclaim the promise of the American dream for every child, worker, parent and community," said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, who addressed the gathering's opening session.

"We know that every child deserves a high-quality education," said Johnson, who singled out the importance of small class sizes, parental involvement and early childhood education programs.

The fight for social and economic justice is rooted in the moral values shared by the AFT and the nation's faith community, AFT President Randi Weingarten said. "Don't tell me that poverty doesn't matter. What matters is what we do to address it."

AFT Photo

One of the primary goals of the AFT's Reclaiming the Promise initiative is to provide every kid with a school "where they can thrive and enjoy the love of learning," Weingarten said. "If we don't do this together, we won't have a public school system."

Presenters at this year's briefing included AFT general counsel David Strom, who provided guidance on IRS rules regarding the political activities of houses of worship, and Leslie Malachi, director of African American Religious Affairs at People for the American Way, who called voter suppression efforts "a war against our democracy."

The faith leaders also received updates on voter mobilization, immigration reform and human trafficking.

Delisa Saunders, deputy director of the AFT human rights and community relations department, led a discussion of the need to diversify the teacher workforce. Currently, of the nation's 3.2 million teachers, 7 percent are African-Americans and 6 percent are Latino. "The AFT is taking this issue and these numbers very seriously, and we're working to turn that around," Saunders said.

David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, outlined several Obama administration priorities, including early childhood education, literacy (especially for adults), an increase in the number of African-Americans in postsecondary education, and a program designed to improve the academic achievement of African-American males. Johns was joined by Sharif El-Mekki from the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

A recurring theme during the briefing was zero-tolerance discipline problems that have led to far too many students of color, particularly black boys, being suspended or expelled from school. There's a direct connection between suspensions and expulsions and the growing prison population, said John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. "Let's address the issue [of school discipline] and give teachers the supports they need to help keep that child in school."

In his remarks, Rev. Dr. Frederick Haynes III (pictured above) noted that 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, too many students still go to inferior schools with under-resourced teachers. "Don't just remember the Brown decision," he exhorted. "We have a responsibility to reclaim the promise of Brown."

Saying that she was "tired of seeing policies that harm our children go unchallenged," Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis urged the faith leaders to continue to step up on behalf of parents, kids and public education. "We are responsible for raising the next generation, and the work that we do together" is extremely important, said Lewis, who is also an AFT vice president. [Roger Glass/AFT photo]

May 15, 2014