Education headlines Congressional Black Caucus events

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"Get ready for the fight of your life."

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), underscoring the urgency of political engagement for union members, drew nods of agreement at the AFT's Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference luncheon Sept. 21. "We are in the battle for the many versus the battle for the money."

It was an apt rallying cry for the conference, where AFT leaders and leading legislators joined panel discussions on how to make high-quality education accessible to all people, not just the wealthy and the privileged.

Large turnout for panel discussion

About 300 AFT members attended the conference Sept. 20-24 in Washington, D.C., learning about legislative approaches to more progressive education policy, and informing the discussions with their firsthand experience as educators. Many also attended the AFT's professional development series there, earning continuing education units at sessions on restorative practices, new technology, gender theory in practice and a presentation by Christopher Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y'all Too.

At the luncheon, AFT staff outlined the current political landscape, describing the odds of the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill passing, President Trump's failing popularity and the challenge of the upcoming midterm elections. A panel of member leaders described how they are facing an increasingly hostile environment: United Teachers Los Angeles has a resolution on racial equity that prioritizes recruiting and developing black male teachers, bias training, job training for young black males and restorative practices. United Teachers of Dade leaders have made a commitment to intersectionality and creative community organizing. And the Chicago Teachers Union is drawing a bright line connecting labor and racial justice.

"Black political power in this country traces the availability of jobs for public employees," said Stacey Davis Gates, political and legislative director for the CTU. "You have to be clear about how labor has been a part of your freedom and a part of this justice movement. … All of these things are connected."

Segregation persists

At a panel linking racial diversity and educational equity, panelists agreed that school segregation persists, and results in inferior education for black people. "More than 20 million students of color are attending schools that are racially segregated," said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). "That's up from about 14 million just a few years ago."

"We have places in our country that are more segregated today than they were 10 or 20 years ago," said former Education Secretary John King Jr. "African-American and Latino students are underrepresented in our schools and in the highest ranks of corporate America. We have to be clear that the need for affirmative action remains."

"There are hundreds of school segregation cases that are still open and ongoing from the '50s and '60s," said Michaele Turnage Young, a segregation attorney with the NAACP. "These school districts literally never desegregated. This is segregation that was created by the state and is maintained by the state."

AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker assured the group that the AFT stands in solidarity with those fighting for equity, reminding the audience of the AFT's history, from filing an amicus brief in the Brown v. Board of Education case and removing locals that refused to adhere to desegregation standards, to the fight for equity in education today. "We look forward to being elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder with you to reclaim the promise of public education for everyone," she said.

During a session on environmental justice, Darryl Alexander, the AFT's recently retired health and safety director, decried the lack of federal leadership on lead contamination in schools and communities. Despite long-standing problems, cities like Newark and Trenton, N.J., have no program to monitor lead in homes. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said 10 percent of the children in his district have alarming levels of lead in their blood. "Why doesn't the federal government provide better incentives for us to monitor lead?" Alexander asked.

She urged participants to demand support for the Rebuild America's Schools Act, introduced by Rep. Scott. All children deserve a safe and healthy place to learn, she said, and when you make enough noise, people pay attention.

We need more black teachers

A panel on the need for more black educators was standing room only, and the conversation full of frank talk about being black in a predominantly white education system. Panelists agreed on the pressing need to recruit more black students to college and help them stay there, so they can become the teachers younger students need. Statistics like the ones from Trenton, N.J., where a student body that is 98 percent people of color is being taught by teachers who are 66 percent white, instilled an urgency in the conversation.

Lorretta Johnson during panel discussion

"If we don't [change] this, we lose 'black studies,'" which, quipped Fedrick Ingram, AFT vice president and vice president of the Florida Education Association, meant black adults schooling black students about how to behave. "I needed somebody who understood my knuckleheadedness." In all seriousness, he added that a rich black intellectual tradition is also at risk if we do not build up black educators.

"Having just one black teacher makes a difference," said Constance Lindsay, a researcher from the Urban Institute. Educators who come from the same communities where their students live can relate to the students in a more meaningful way, said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson (pictured above with the NEA's Becky Pringle), who pointed out that many paraprofessionals fit that description. "We have almost 2 million paras, and most of them are African-American. Why aren't we educating them to go on to become teachers?" she asked.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), offering real steps toward equity, said she wants legislation that will support those paras who want to become teachers. She also said more jurisdictions must take back control of their school districts by replacing appointed school boards with elected boards.

The AFT educators at the conference will no doubt take the lead to create more opportunities for positive change. Teachers were, after all, on the forefront of the civil rights movement, noted Ellison. "We are the ones who must fight forward to reclaim the promise of public education," said Johnson.

[Virginia Myers, Annette Licitra]