AFT activists press Capitol Hill for strong school funding

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Dozens of AFT members and leaders broke away from their divisional meetings in Washington, D.C., to fan across Capitol Hill on Oct. 3, visiting the offices of lawmakers on key House and Senate committees and sharing stories about why Congress must adopt a federal budget that provides the kids in their classrooms with services and programs that truly prepare them for life.

The lobby day was organized by the Committee for Education Funding. The AFT, a CEF member, played a commanding role in the effort: The union interrupted sessions of the program and policy councils to fill two buses with AFT leaders and members. The groups took part in more than 40 meetings at House and Senate offices that morning, prodding Capitol Hill to make 2017 the year that Congress steps up to make federal education investments across the board— from preschool through higher education.

AFT members lobbying on Capitol Hill

To do any less, to enshrine the status quo of austerity, would be a true disservice to the millions of children who look to public schools for knowledge, opportunity and hope.

Only two cents out of every federal dollar have gone to education, a level of investment that has held steady for years. Activists used the meetings to urge lawmakers to get behind CEF's "5¢ Makes Sense" campaign, an effort to raise federal education outlays to a modest 5 percent of every dollar spent.

The exchanges with congressional staffers were real and sometimes raw.

The nation's opioid crisis came up at a discussion in the offices of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, (R-W.Va.), and staffers listened intently as Dreama Morris, an early childhood assistant teacher in the senator's home state, told of the profound and disturbing challenges she sees every day with the youngest students. Morris said the kindergarten at her school alone serves about 26 children from families who have been touched directly or indirectly by tragedy.

"The opioid epidemic is affecting schools all the way around, and we're just starting to get in children who have to have wraparound services," Morris, who is also president of the AFT-Wayne Service Personnel, said after the meeting. Cuts in federal funding weaken essential services like speech and physical therapy in the school. That would be a disaster in Morris' kindergarten, where specialists are crucial because "we have several students who have a full 30 minutes of speech therapy every day."

Ricker and West Virginia leaders

Stacey Strawderman, a middle school math teacher in Marion County, W.Va., told staffers that cuts will fall hardest on public school systems like hers, and schools that serve so many disadvantaged students. For those schools, federal funding is what keeps class size down and provides professional development for staff. Cutting Title I and Title II "would be devastating" for these schools," warns Strawderman, who is also a vice president of AFT-West Virginia and president of her local, and Congress "needs to hear that from actual teachers, to hear what's really happening in our classrooms" and how it is affecting students and their futures.

"Talking with them face to face lends to a more personal and connected sense for them and for us," said Cynthia Phillips, a high school reading and language arts teacher from Charleston, W.Va., who also took part in the lobby day. "It lets them know what's really going on in their hometowns and states."

The day of action, perhaps most importantly, was a chance to reset the conversation with Capitol Hill, said AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker (pictured above), who was part of the delegation that visited staff for Capito and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

When it comes to education, "a narrative of rationing" has been in place too long, said Ricker, who is also a middle school English teacher. What's needed is for lawmakers to join public education's frontline, to embrace a vision for kids and what their public schools could be.

"When we are talking about the schools our children deserve, then we are in our narrative," Ricker said. "We shouldn't be rationing courses in world languages; we shouldn't be rationing career and technical education; we shouldn't be rationing all those wraparound services that make well-rounded students and get them ready for the world."

AFT members took advantage of that opportunity—to discuss not only their fears but also their hopes for the kids they work with and are there for every day. "To see our people step into a U.S. senator's office, talking as equals and as experts in their fields—it was a sight to see and one I will not soon forget," Ricker said.

[Mike Rose]