With her signature wave and can-do smile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) gave a rousing speech on day two of the convention, profusely thanking AFT members for their hard work throughout the pandemic and before, then covering top issues she champions—with AFT leaders—including sensible gun safety legislation; adequate public school resources; trust and respect for educators who teach the truth; and one of her topmost priorities, student debt relief.
Starting with the recognition that America still mourns those killed at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, Warren blamed Congress for failing educators and their students by not passing laws for universal background checks and other commonsense gun violence prevention measures. She lauded the “critically important” gun safety legislation passed last month but said much more is needed.
Warren also enumerated the reasons we fight for education funding—so that schools become safer, educators receive the resources they need to teach, and school workers’ wages are increased to reflect their crucial work. And she talked about how important it is to teach honest history and to push back on misinformation. “You deserve to be empowered and trusted to teach the truth,” she told educators in the audience.
Warren described her own backstory: The daughter of a janitor and a minimum-wage retail worker, her community college cost $50 a semester and she paid for it with a part-time waitressing job, eventually becoming a teacher, a law school professor and now the top-ranking U.S. senator from Massachusetts. “Public higher education opened a million doors for me,” she said. “I am grateful down to my toes, but the path I walked is closed today.”
College now costs tens of thousands of dollars. States are failing to invest in higher education, and the federal government advises students to borrow what they need. That’s why 65 percent of teachers age 35 and under had to take out student loans to go to college, said Warren. The average debt for all teachers with student loans is $56,000. Nationally, student debt has hit $1.6 trillion.
Warren applauded the repairs recently made to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, a federal initiative that eliminates remaining student debt for public workers who make 10 years’ worth of payments on their loans. Under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the system was an utter failure, but with fixes put in place by the Biden administration (and as a result of lawsuits and advocacy from the AFT), more and more people are getting the loan relief they were promised.
“I’m all in favor of this relief,” said Warren, “But it’s not enough.” She called for canceling $50,000 of student loan debt “for everyone who is struggling with a mountain of student loan debt.” Warren and other congressional Democrats say broad debt forgiveness would bolster the economy and would not, as some argue, favor “a bunch of kids from fancy schools,” as she put it.
Debt does disproportionately affect Black students, Warren noted. Black women carry the heaviest burden: They owe 47 percent more than white men and 27 percent more than white women. “This is why student loan debt cancellation is a racial justice issue and a gender justice issue,” said Warren, who vowed to continue to fight forward.
“We can’t back down—we won’t back down—on the issues that matter,” she said. “We are staying in the fight.”
[Virginia Myers/photo by Pamela Wolfe]