Where We Stand: Reclaiming Our Future

WHY IS THERE such a drastic teacher shortage right now? I get that question a lot. My answer is, Why wouldn’t there be?

Teaching has always been a tough job: inadequate respect, pay, and conditions—and educators always doing more with less. But then everything got much, much tougher because of COVID-19. And also because of the relentless, politicized war being waged on teachers and on public education. It’s the perfect storm.

Look at the fear—the chill—many of you face at work, especially in states like Florida and Texas. If a student asks you about the motives of the shooter at Tops supermarket in Buffalo, you think twice about how to answer. If a student confides that they might be gay, you fear that the safe and welcoming environment you’ve created will be misconstrued as “indoctrinating” them. And in New Hampshire or Virginia, any response could get a bounty on your head or a report to the tip line.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claims that elementary school faculty are “instructed to tell” kids to change the gender they were assigned at birth. Donald Trump said that we must “liberate” children “from the captivity of these Marxist teachers.”

Just know the AFT has your back. We will defend anyone who is simply trying to teach and act in the best interests of children. But let’s be very clear. These attacks are intentional. They are part of a coordinated campaign to destabilize and privatize public education. In 1955—the year after the Brown v. Board decision—economist Milton Friedman began advocating for “educational freedom,” allowing white families to avoid integration by using vouchers for private schools. In the ensuing decades, high-stakes standardized tests were weaponized against public schools, and “reform” programs imposed top-down accountability without concern for kids’ needs.

Betsy DeVos and other extremists have continued the campaign, using harmless-sounding terms like “school choice” and “parental rights” to thinly veil their goal: to destroy public education and replace it with an unregulated voucher system that would increase economic and racial segregation. Right-wing activist Christopher Rufo says openly that, to achieve this aim, they must be “ruthless and brutal” and “operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.” As Stand for Children CEO Jonah Edelman and I described in our April 2022 TIME op-ed, politicians following Rufo’s playbook are banning books, dehumanizing LGBTQIA+ students, and demanding teachers remain neutral on—or worse, teach both sides of—Nazism, slavery, lynching, and other historical atrocities.

The extremists understand that public schools unify Americans. They also see, as polling consistently shows, that Americans value educators and want to invest in their public schools. So to achieve their political goals, they sow distrust, undermine educators and public schools, and try to drive a wedge between teachers and parents.

It’s brutal to be in the crosshairs of these attacks, particularly on top of everything else, like wondering if you will ever be able to pay back your student loans or have a small enough class size to meet students’ needs. No wonder about one-third of teachers said they were likely to leave their job by the end of the 2021–22 school year (according to a RAND Corporation survey). No wonder teacher preparation enrollment is dropping, or that the AFT’s own polling shows that 75 percent of our teacher members would not recommend teaching to young people today.

Cause for Hope: Parents and the Public Are with Us

Our members are the antidote to this. They make a difference in the lives of children, families, and communities. I saw that big time at this summer’s AFT convention. This moment can be viewed through the lens of fear or hope, despair or aspiration, self-interest or the greater good. The members of this union definitively, defiantly, and undeniably choose hope, aspiration, and the greater good. And families are with us.

  • American parents support their public schools. In a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, 88 percent of parents said they think teachers are doing the best they can. In a January 2022 national survey by Hart Research Associates and Lake Research Partners, 78 percent of parents expressed satisfaction with their children’s schools’ handling of the pandemic. And in a May 2022 poll of likely voters in battleground states by Hart, voters showed that they get the challenges educators face. They identified the top three problems facing schools as politicization of education, shortages of teachers and staff, and a lack of support and respect for teachers.
  • Americans share educators’ priorities. In that May Hart poll, participants also identified the most important goals schools should focus on. As you see in the chart below, they want schools’ core mission to be developing fundamental academic and life skills. That is what our “What Kids and Communities Need” campaign is about—investing in the essential knowledge and skills students need; focusing on reading; creating more community schools and career and technical education programs (which you can read about here); partnering with parents; and fighting for the climate, culture, conditions, and compensation required for educators to do and stay in their jobs (learn more about how we’re addressing the educator shortage here).

A Time to Act

As author Grace Paley said, “The only recognizable feature of hope is action.” We must act—to protect our public schools and to defend our democracy and our freedoms. We have to organize, mobilize, and get out the vote. And organizing includes growing. On June 18, the American Association of University Professors voted to affiliate with the AFT, bringing together more than 300,000 higher education faculty to create the largest such alliance in the country. Welcome to the AFT family!

This is a critical time to join forces because everything is at risk: our freedoms, our democracy, our schools, our basic economic safety net. Anti-democracy forces worked overtime before the 2020 election to limit voting rights. Then, after Americans voted in record numbers, Trump and his allies went to shocking lengths to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Our democracy held, but it is in danger (as the articles here and here explain).

And so is our economic safety net. Look at the plan released by Senator Rick Scott, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to sunset every federal law every five years. What would that mean for Medicare and Social Security? Look at the decisions handed down by the extremist majority on the Supreme Court in the last few months. They ignored long-standing legal precedents and eviscerated the separation of church and state, denied the rights of states to protect children and families from gun violence, limited the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and overturned Roe v. Wade (which you can read about here).

We must vote in November as if our lives depend upon it—because they do. If we get out the vote, we will win. Look at all we have accomplished under President Biden—the most pro–working family, pro-labor president in our history—with Democrats in control of Congress, and imagine how much more we could do by retaining the House and gaining a couple more senators.

  • The American Rescue Plan, a once-in-a-generation investment that enabled Americans to pull through the pandemic together and ensured that schools had the resources to safely reopen.
  • The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is a long-term investment in our infrastructure, climate, and competitiveness that creates good union jobs.
  • The CHIPS and Science Act, a transformational bill to strengthen the country’s technology infrastructure, increase national security, and promote vital research programs while investing in workforce development, revitalizing rural communities, creating high-paying union jobs, and expanding access to STEM education.
  • The Inflation Reduction Act, which will slash prices for workers and families—including drug, healthcare, and energy costs—and, as Senator Chuck Schumer said, “kick-start the era of affordable clean energy in America.”

On top of these wins, the US Department of Education under Biden has made the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program a priority (see here for details). And, while not enough, federal commonsense gun safety legislation passed—the first in three decades.  

So as Senator Elizabeth Warren urged us to do when she spoke at our convention, let’s stay in the fight. Let’s choose hope. That’s how we’ll reclaim our future.

American Educator, Fall 2022