A teachable, actionable moment on Capitol Hill

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A moment both teachable and actionable came together when AFT members, leaders and allies in the community and in Congress assembled on Capitol Hill on July 19 for a "Teach In, Speak Out" rally to defend public education against a disastrous White House budget proposal and to stand up for the healthcare rights that President Trump and GOP congressional leaders have put in jeopardy.

The event drew members from coast to coast, most of whom had come to Washington, D.C., for the AFT's biennial TEACH conference. Many said that combining TEACH with a Capitol Hill rally, followed by visits to congressional offices, was a perfect match: Congress must grasp that the great instructional strategies and genuine frontline commitment on display at TEACH, one of the nation's pre-eminent professional conferences for educators, could be savagely undercut in the classroom unless Congress stands firm against the outrageous $9 billion package of education cuts floated by Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Nancy Pelosi speaking at rally

"You hear teachers say, 'I'll stay out of politics when politics stays out of my classroom,' and I totally support that view," said Los Angeles teacher and professional development specialist Ingrid Gunnell (pictured below), one of the many AFT members who boarded a line of buses at the conference en route to the rally and to meetings with lawmakers that afternoon. Congress "needs to understand there is a direct connection" between what happens in these corridors of power and prospects for success in America's classrooms.

There was also urgency on the healthcare front. The Senate is expected to vote next week on proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act, with massive cuts to Medicaid and guaranteed benefits replaced by "junk" health plans. If passed, millions of people will lose healthcare coverage and insurers will likely be allowed to charge retirees and those with pre-existing conditions significantly more for care.

"We don't play politics in the emergency room—we try to save people's lives," said Brian Burger, an ER nurse at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. "We have to continue to treat patients and give them the resources they need to survive." Burger was among a group of healthcare workers who traveled to Washington to take part in the afternoon of action and meet with their congressional representatives. Like others, Burger is concerned that if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, patients who now have access to primary care will end up in the ER sicker and more difficult to treat.

Ingrid Gunnell

Mark Whitehurst, a retired nurse who worked in the neonatal intensive care unit at Akron General Medical Center in Ohio, wants the money from Medicaid to address the opioid crisis in the state to stay untouched. "When I worked in the NICU, we had a lot of drug-addicted babies. Without Medicaid, it will be really bad," he said. "Being retired and on disability, the budget they are proposing right now will also affect me personally, and I worry about that as well."

In the meantime, Whitehurst plans to continue his efforts to resist repeal. "We need to keep the pressure on like we've been doing and let them know that we are not OK with letting the ACA wither on the vine."

AFT President Randi Weingarten was joined at the rally podium by an impressive array of Democratic lawmakers who have led the fight against cuts in both education and healthcare: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.). Leading the charge for labor were AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Activists from Planned Parenthood and MoveOn also took the mic in a show of solidarity; together, the impressive roster of speakers amped up the crowd, which was clad in AFT blue and raucous throughout the proceedings despite the blistering afternoon heat of a Washington summer.

"We are standing for our patients, for our students, for our communities and for ourselves—that is virtuous work," Weingarten told the audience dominated by AFT educators and healthcare professionals. "You can speak truth to power better than anyone I've ever known. And that's what you can do" in one-on-one meetings with senators and representatives.

Truth to power

Those frontline, first-person accounts—the personal stories detailing the human toll of cuts to education and healthcare served up in order to bankroll a bonanza in tax-cut windfalls for a wealthy few—can be game changers, virtually every speaker at the rally told the audience. Those stories can move Congress in the right direction at a critical moment. And that moment is now: A summer when lawmakers will deal with a GOP healthcare scheme that refuses to die and with education cuts proposed by Trump and DeVos that take an ax to opportunity by:

  • Cutting programs and services for students with disabilities.
  • Disadvantaging rural communities and the 1 in 5 public school students who live in rural areas.
  • Eliminating after-school and summer programs.
  • Cutting Title III funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which specifically fund programs and services for English language learners.
  • Eliminating funding for community schools.
  • Causing schools to lose one-quarter of their Medicaid funding, which pays for essential school-based services like physical therapists, feeding tubes and other medical equipment, and health screenings for children with special needs.

The fight underway "is about the health and well-being of our country," Pelosi said.

"I've been here 36 years," Hoyer said. "This is the worst budget, the most irrational budget, the most heartless budget" presented by any administration.

Meeting with Sen. Franken

Defeating it will require sustained feedback and examples from the field about the life-changing value of strong schools, said Hassan, who shared her own heart-warming example with the crowd. The New Hampshire senator is raising a son with a disability, a boy whose intellect is often conveyed with just a smile when sharp wit enters the conversation around him. It was one of his teachers who recognized this first ("he smiles when students around him get the answer wrong") and was able to bring it to the fore in his studies. "He had a strong paraprofessional to help him," she said. And his teacher "knew what every one of those kids was doing, and what every one of them was learning."

Similar stories of public education's value made the rounds in congressional visits, thanks to activists like Erin Azer and Trish Johnson of Tartan High School in North St. Paul, Minn. They were among the teachers ready to speak their minds in one-on-one visits and planned to urge stepped-up support for programs designed to prepare students to participate fully in the 21st-century workforce. Also a priority, they said, were efforts on Capitol Hill to help prepare and retain public school teachers and to grasp the full range of challenges in the classroom.

The mental health piece is vital, Azer said, noting that Minnesota ranks at or near the bottom for counselors in schools.

Johnson, a building rep in her school, said the day of action also underscores the need for vibrant unions as the effective vehicle for educators and healthcare professionals to engage politicians and policymakers. If the GOP's efforts to dismantle unions succeed, Minnesota and other states "could go the way of [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker," pointing to policies that have weakened unions and their ability to defend education and other vital institutions in Minnesota's neighbor.

[Staff reports]