The North Miami Middle School gymnasium became a national stage June 25, the day before the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign season, as AFT members came together with presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke in the seventh in a series of AFT Votes town halls. The meetings, designed to engage candidates in the direct experiences of public school teachers, faculty members, public employees and working families, give AFT members the opportunity to share their concerns and question candidates—thus far including Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—about their plans to support public education, public services and working families in this country.
AFT President Randi Weingarten introduced O’Rourke as an ally who would listen closely to members’ ideas and needs, and told town hall participants that he’d visited all 254 counties in Texas during his run for the U.S. Senate. “He believes the mantra of the AFT: You care, you fight and you show up,” Weingarten said. “If we’re going to change things in America, people have to see that elected leaders are actually walking in our shoes, hearing what we say, understanding what we feel.”
O’Rourke said his efforts in Texas were part of his commitment to focus on the entire electorate, to be sure that despite gerrymandered congressional districts that marginalize black and brown voters, he is determined to reach every voter to listen to their concerns and to share “the courage of my conviction” that access to our democracy is essential.
As a resident of El Paso, O’Rourke has been close to the tragedy unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border, and spoke strongly against the abuses taking place there. It is an issue the AFT has also lifted up, pressing for change.
“In my hometown of El Paso, Texas, there are kids who have just survived a 2,000-mile journey, leaving the deadliest countries on the face of the planet today,” he said. “They arrive at their most desperate and vulnerable moment. This, the wealthiest country on the face of the planet, has chosen to meet them with a level of cruelty and inhumanity that I never thought we’d see in this country.” O’Rourke described conditions in the detention centers where children are “sleeping on concrete floors in their own filth, unwashed, uncared for, unclean for weeks, sometimes months,” and where older children are tasked with caring for the younger children. As president, O’Rourke would work to stop the abuse and adopt more humane and sensible immigration laws.
In schools, children are again asked to care for one another because teachers are under-resourced, overworked and unable to give individual students the attention they need, he said, describing a student who told him she was helping her classmates through their work because the teacher was unavailable. O’Rourke, whose children attend the public schools he attended himself, said he understands what is happening in classrooms like the ones teachers described to him during a roundtable discussion that preceded the town hall. He heard from Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram who told him there are 10,000 classrooms in Florida with no certified teacher, that there are 2,200 teaching vacancies and that 40 percent of teachers are predicted to leave the profession before they complete their fifth year of teaching. Teacher pay in Florida is ranked 46th in the nation.
“As president, I want to make sure that I take your inspiration, your guidance and your lead to make sure that you’re valued, you’re respected, that your pay is commensurate with your experience, that you don’t have to take a second or third job,” he said.
O’Rourke answered questions from the audience, including one about his position on charter schools. “There is no role for for-profit charters in this country,” he said. “There is no way we are going to charter our way through or out of the challenges we face. My focus is going to be on public schools and public school educators.”