Educators amplify teacher activism on Capitol Hill

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For the past year, educators across the country have been making a huge impact at strikes, marches and rallies, building coalitions, and engaging in the political process to improve teaching and learning conditions in public schools. On May 30, that movement was amplified in the halls of the U.S. Congress, as teachers described their successes on a panel hosted by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.


Georgia Flowers Lee (African American woman) and Stephanie Ly during a visit to Capital Hill

The teachers spoke about the dramatic strides they’ve made in California, Maryland, New Mexico and Oklahoma by speaking out about poorly funded schools and unacceptable learning conditions for their students, and by demanding that their states provide the high-quality education their students deserve.

“If I can use my voice to carry our message, then I am more than happy to do it,” said Georgia Flowers Lee, a special education teacher and a member of the United Teachers Los Angeles board of directors who spoke on the panel. “Teachers are realizing that our voices matter, and that we can no longer go into our classrooms and close the door,” she said. “We have to make sure that our communities understand what is happening at our school sites.”

Lee said she jumped into UTLA activism “because the conditions I saw in my school were appalling.” Staff cuts meant schools had nurses and librarians only a few days a week, and teachers had to clean their own class bathrooms. Class sizes were untenable, and teacher pay made it impossible to afford housing in Los Angeles. “It was time to take action,” said Lee, who proudly joined throngs of educators during the six-day strike in January.

That action, and the vast community support the union generated, resulted in huge gains for the schools, including increased nursing and librarian staff, caps on class size, a 6 percent pay raise for teachers, investment in community schools and more.

In addition to these gains, Lee said the attention educators have enjoyed from their communities is crucial. “Now people are listening,” she said. “They’re hearing us, and that makes a difference. We are speaking truth, saying we need their help, and they are stepping up.”

Community support was also essential in New Mexico, said AFT New Mexico President Stephanie Ly. AFT-NM’s “Keep the Promise” campaign helped turn around chronic underfunding and the lowest teacher pay in the nation by urging New Mexicans to support a vision of well-funded, equitable public education—partly through a bus tour that touched thousands of people across the state. “We organized around that vision,” said Ly, who acknowledged one of the biggest challenges educators faced: an anti-public education governor, House and Senate. To address that challenge, AFT-NM launched a concerted effort to recruit and elect AFT members and other pro-public education candidates.

Those candidates now hold public office, and they’ve changed the education landscape. Teachers, who were among the lowest paid in the nation, have gotten substantial pay increases. In a state where 40 percent of the education workforce is on public assistance, the union also helped win pay increases for paraprofessionals and fought for the first meaningful minimum wage increases in a decade. Funding for community schools has been established at the state level, and a “grow-your-own” program to address teacher shortages is underway.

Other teachers on the panel described similar gains. In Oklahoma, teachers walked out to protest “enormous” class sizes and wages so low that teachers were leaving the state in droves, said Amber Spradlin, president of the Choctaw-Nicoma Park Education Association just east of Oklahoma City. After a nine-day walkout, the teachers won a tax increase to fund public education and pay raises for teachers. Then they focused on elections and helped oust eight of the 13 legislators who voted against the pay raise. Many were replaced with educators who now call the union for input on education-related legislation.

The fights for funding continue, as Katherine Mullen, a teacher in Baltimore County, Md., explained. Her union, the Maryland State Education Association, uncovered misappropriation of funding earmarked for public schools—even as schools were crumbling and students were suffering with no heat in winter and no air conditioning during a brutally hot summer. “Teachers exposed, educated and engaged” legislators to “fix the fund,” redirecting money back to the schools and adding $500 million to school budgets. They also helped pass the Blueprint for Maryland Schools, a state bill with a target of $4 billion in additional funding for the state’s public education system.

Liz Watson, executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, praised the panelists for the gains they described. “Educators are standing up all across this country,” she said. “You are the vanguard of a movement of working people who are saying, ‘enough is enough.’ We need to invest in what matters—in our students and in our schools and our communities.”

[Virginia Myers]