Where We Stand: Let’s Build Back Better Together

By Randi Weingarten

How do you show what you value? By walking your talk. While it’s hard sometimes, it’s always worth the effort. I learned that lesson yet again throughout October as I traveled coast to coast from California to Florida. 15 states. 33 days. 45 cities and towns. 94 events. All to get out the vote for the candidates and issues that walk the walk for a better life for working families, for our students, and for our communities.

Some days were exhausting, but I knew that thousands of AFT members were walking their talk too. In addition to the herculean efforts that our members have made in addressing the challenges of the pandemic, from taking care of patients to feeding and teaching kids, our members got involved in this election. In October alone, the effort to get Joe Biden and Kamala Harris elected involved thousands of volunteers who made over half a million phone calls. By November 3, more than 76 percent of our members had received their ballot or already voted.

I rode the AFT Votes bus to fight for a future in which teachers, nurses, and all other hard-working people are paid fair wages and have the conditions they need to do the work they love. I rode to support everyone who believes in science and is striving to end this horrific pandemic, to call on leaders to make safely reopening school buildings their top priority, to give out thousands of books and masks, and to help the hundreds of thousands who are hurting now. And I rode to assure one community after another that together we will rebuild America, making it fairer and more just.

In a survey soon after the election, 56 percent of Trump voters said he “stands up for America’s values, history, and culture.” That is difficult to understand for those of us who love America and because of that love are fighting to increase fairness and opportunity. But I believe we have shared aspirations to build on. We all want to feel safe—economically, emotionally, and physically—and we all believe in “liberty and justice for all.” And yet, while some feel that their chance at the American dream has been slipping away, others feel that they have never truly had a chance. Our best hope is to band together, demanding the things we all want: jobs with good wages, healthcare that is affordable, and public schools that inspire and nurture our youth.

I believe we should start with our schools. Ninety percent of American children attend public schools. Public schools play a vital role in our children’s lives, our communities, our economy, and our democracy. They can help heal our divided country: our public schools are where we both embrace America’s diversity and forge a common identity. They are where we learn about the complex and troubling parts of our history, not to denigrate this great country, but so that our children see their role in creating “a more perfect Union” and develop their civic participation muscles.

No matter which party takes the majority in the Senate, our public schools will be—must be—places where we all come together. The talk of a vaccine gives some hope, but we still must tackle the current virus surge. We must give our schools the resources they need to reopen safely and to engage in social and emotional learning along with academics. Our kids will be better off, parents will have more work options, and the economy will have a chance to recover. Teachers and support staff have once again been heroic, doing everything they have been asked to do, but they are exhausted and scared. And they feel very alone.

President-elect Biden is committed to working with Congress to pass a COVID-19 relief package that will help reopen school buildings safely. Beyond that immediate relief, the Biden-Harris education plan fulfills the promise and purpose of our public schools as agents of opportunity and anchors of our communities. It pledges to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and triple Title I funding for students from low-income families. It will provide high-quality universal prekindergarten and double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in our schools. It will restore the mission of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. And it will expand community schools, which provide vital wraparound services and enrichment opportunities.

The election is over, but we are far from done. As we look forward to 2021, how will you show what you value? Will you call on local, state, and federal officials to fully fund public schools—to make them community hubs where all students and their families are safe and welcome? Where our young people’s intellectual, emotional, and cultural development are recognized as equally important and fully intertwined? Where essential health and social services are accessible, and families are encouraged to speak up about their needs? And where, in response to our nation’s deep divisions, new life is breathed into our democracy?

I often said that this election was about the soul of our nation. You are that soul. You cared, you fought, you showed up—and you voted. Now the real work begins, together.

American Educator, Winter 2020-2021
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