I'VE BEEN IN over 100 schools and worksites since April 2021—by last count about 125—because I wanted to be with you as much as humanly possible. This school year has been really tough. Students came back to school with enormous needs—academic, emotional, and social. And while the Biden administration got us many more resources, we still had to deal with all the same paperwork and testing fixation, as if this pandemic and its effects didn’t happen. This was a lot, and your amazing work is the not-so-secret sauce that has helped children and families recover and thrive.
So, how did educators go from being heroes in 2020 at the start of the pandemic to being vilified in 2022? Because extremists are exploiting anxiety and uncertainty to try to undermine public education—and our democracy. This is an election year; rather than help everyone recover from this unprecedented pandemic, they would rather divide and conquer. It’s as simple and scary as that.
Censoring teachers from talking about “divisive” topics, book bans, “don’t say gay” statutes, and McCarthyistic tip lines encouraging parents to “report” you for teaching honest history—these are all intended to drive a wedge between educators and families. Our children are being targeted too, by attempts to marginalize LGBTQIA+ students and to gut programs that help our students socially and emotionally. (And these attacks are amplified—for profit—on social media.) But what’s really happening in classrooms is educators are rebuilding relationships with students, even as they struggle to keep up with the same old pacing guides and succeed on the same old tests.
Extremists want universal school choice, so they have embarked on a campaign to undermine public schools. In the words of Christopher Rufo, one of the right’s orchestrators, “To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.”
Our schools aren’t perfect—but they have been a lifeline throughout the pandemic. We can stand up for public education and fight to make it better.
Public education is an equalizer. Just like democracy, it provides voice, agency, and empowerment to all. Together, we can make every public school a place where parents want to send their kids, where teachers want to teach, and where students feel safe and engaged. But we’ll have to fight back and fight forward.
Public education and labor have always worked hand in hand to build a more just, inclusive world—from bringing children out of factories and into classrooms in the early 20th century, to the AFT’s role in the civil rights movement, to our support for Ukrainian teachers, some of whom I met in April during a recent trip to Poland.
The other side knows that we’re a bulwark for broad-based opportunity, so the attacks won’t stop. But we are not alone.
Parents overwhelmingly support their public schools and how schools have handled the pandemic. In an April 2022 NPR/Ipsos poll, parents expressed strong satisfaction with their children’s schools and what is being taught in them, regardless of their political affiliation. (That’s why in recent school board elections in New Hampshire and Montana, pro–public education candidates won across major districts.) The public is with labor, too: a Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans approve of unions, the highest level since 1965.
Parents and the public are with us because we work with them. We care about kids’ recovery and their future. That’s why we created our Reading Opens the World campaign and are giving out one million books to children and educators in marginalized communities. And we care about college being affordable and accessible to all. That’s why we partnered with Summer to help AFT members minimize their student loan payments, sued Navient to stop its misleading loan practices, and even sued the US Department of Education to fix the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. This is our work. We do it regardless of the demagogues’ attacks, and we are getting results.
Every moment in history can be viewed through a lens of hope or fear, aspiration or anger. But aspiration beats hate every time. That’s who we are: change agents and hope creators. Together, we can help move America forward and win a better life for all.