Where We Stand: Winning the Race Between Fear and Hope

Randi with educators in Cleveland
Weingarten, front, helping distribute 40,000 free books in Cleveland on Dec. 12, 2022.

CRISSCROSSING THE COUNTRY in the AFT Votes bus last fall, I often saw fear and hope, anger and aspiration. It feels like our country is in the midst of a race between these competing feelings and values. And while the election deniers were defeated in November 2022, and while overwhelmingly, the public and parents want us to strengthen public schools—not increase privatization and choice—you wouldn’t know how clear the will of the people is on these issues when watching governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida or congresspeople like Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia.

The vision we are pursuing is clear: An America that offers opportunity—a voice, a vote, a better life—for everyone. A democracy that hears all, respects all. It is a fight, and we are in a race.

Every day, educators provide what kids and communities need. At a recent education town hall led by Senator Bernie Sanders, teachers reminded all of us why they teach. “Why am I an educator?” asked Alison Sylvester. “Because children matter.... Their futures matter.” And Arthur Anderson said, “I became a teacher because I wanted to change lives.”

Life-changers. Hope-bringers. Fear-crushers. That’s who educators are, despite three pandemic years with unprecedented challenges. And most of the country is with you, not just your union.

While Americans rejected extremism and mostly supported pro-education, pro-democracy candidates and ballot measures in the midterms, the extremists won’t stand down. That’s why we have to keep standing up, demonstrating the contrast between their agenda and our vision:

The other side is attempting to defund public schools. We’re fighting for the essentials students need to thrive. As of February, 16 state legislatures are considering bills to either create or expand voucher programs, even though research shows such privatization schemes destabilize the neighborhood public schools that serve 90 percent of America’s kids.

Meanwhile, in state after state, we are fighting for the investment needed to help kids thrive—the kind of transformative investment we helped win recently in California, New Mexico, and New York. And on the federal level, we are working to increase Title I and IDEA funds, expand career and college pathways for our young people, and increase the number of community schools so children and families can get healthcare, food assistance, and other crucial services in one place.

The other side has unleashed a torrent of censorship. We’re giving students books and sparking a lifelong love of reading. During the 2021–22 school year, PEN America documented 1,648 books banned from schools and a 250 percent increase from 2021 to 2022 in proposed legislation restricting instruction on race, gender, and American history. Governor DeSantis is leading these attacks by threatening teachers with felonies if they give students the wrong book to read, threatening students and parents with eliminating AP courses, and threatening professors with wiping out academic freedom in Florida’s public higher education system.

Meanwhile, the AFT’s Reading Opens the World initiative has distributed one million free books to kids already—and in 2023, we’re giving away one million more. Our goal is joyful and confident readers, and our events bring together the whole family to enjoy read-alouds, start their very own libraries, and get tips for supporting literacy at home.

The other side is demonizing teachers and driving them away. We’re exploring ways to recruit and retain great educators. We see this demonization every day; just look at the terms extremists use, like former Trump aide Mike Pompeo suggesting we teach “filth” and Laura Ingraham of Fox News asking about schools as “grooming centers for gender identity radicals.” Duval County, Florida, third-grade teacher Andrea Phillips wrote, “I’m furious that there has been talk of putting guns in teachers’ hands, but I’m not trusted enough to put a book in a child’s hand…. [It’s] tearing apart classrooms and sending teachers in search of new careers.”

Meanwhile, the AFT has laid out concrete ways to solve the teacher shortage crisis and win the respect, support, and pay educators deserve. We’re backing Representative Frederica Wilson’s American Teacher Act and Senator Sanders’s Pay Teachers Act. And through our Innovation Fund grants, we’re helping our locals find creative new pathways to recruitment and retention.

Yes, we are in a race: between decency and cruelty, the survival of democracy and the rise of autocracy. And the more we act, the more we will see our vision of opportunity, respect, hope, and aspiration prevail. As author Grace Paley said, “The only recognizable feature of hope is action.”

American Educator, Spring 2023