Teachers take on Capitol Hill on AFT lobby day

More than 160 AFT members fanned out across Capitol Hill on Wednesday, pumped up and ready to tell their congressional representatives what they need for their schools and their communities. This was the AFT’s lobby day. This is what democracy looks like.

Lobby Day

“What you are doing here today is the most important work,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told them before they set off for meetings in 72 different House and Senate offices. “You are petitioning the government as the people of the United States. Even though we are lobbying about education and issues that affect our classrooms and our students, you are also the muscle doing the work of civic participation that our founding fathers said was important. You are … ensuring that the people have a voice in this country and that our children have an opportunity for a future in an equitable way.”

Freshman Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) and longtime Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, cheered on the members: “I am a product of the investment that we make in public education,” said Trahan, who attended Lowell, Mass., public schools. “My family went from a working-class family to a middle-class family because organized labor leveled the playing field for all of us. You champion fairness and economic opportunity for our families through organizing and collective bargaining, and we’re here to stand shoulder to shoulder with you on preserving those rights.”

“Your voices will make a difference in what happens in this institution,” DeLauro said. “The budget that this administration has proposed includes the largest cuts to education since the department was created in 1979,” she said. “The cuts and the effort to privatize will hurt our schools and our students. As long as you are here, they are not going to do it. I couldn’t be more proud to be an ally in this fight.”

Lobby Day

The lobbying educators focused on three issues: the $4.4 billion education funding bill recently passed by the House of Representatives and the importance of passing a similar bill in the Senate; the Keeping Our Promise to America’s Children and Teachers (PACT) Act to fully fund Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; and a bill to strengthen an essentially broken Public Service Loan Forgiveness program originally designed to wipe out student debt for student loan borrowers who are teachers, faculty members and other people serving in the public sector.

The education funding bill has been heralded as a major accomplishment for public school advocates. It increases Title I funding, which supports poorly resourced schools, by $1 billion; increases funds for special education, including IDEA and Special Olympics, by $1 billion; and adds $500 million to professional development funding, $40 million to community schools and $492 million to federal student aid programs. The trick is to get a similar bill through the Senate, which was what advocates asked for during lobby day.

“Having that money would help us supply wraparound services, basic health services, counselors and psychiatric services,” Michael Berstein, a South Philadelphia community school teacher, told a staffer in the office of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). That funding could provide a full-time nurse for every Title I school, a full-time librarian for every Title I school, and additional full-time counselors or full-time teaching assistants. Funding for additional educators is crucial, said Danika Nieves, who teaches in a Philadelphia school with 40 students per classroom and just two counselors for 1,200 students. “It’s not feasible” to teach this way, she said. Christine Richardson agreed: Her Bucks County, Pa., classroom has 35 students, “from gifted to severely autistic and everything in between. … We need Sen. Toomey to feel how difficult things are for us every single day,” she said. “We need his help to make sure these students have an even playing field.”

Lobby Day

The members were also promoting the PACT Act, which would fully fund Title I and IDEA after years of being underfunded. “Being seasoned teachers for such a long time, we’ve seen the needs of our students increase drastically but the resources are being eroded,” Richardson told Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). “We have increased caseloads, class sizes. We need to do better by our students. We need your help.”

Lobby day participants asked their representatives to co-sponsor this bill and urge their colleagues to follow suit. “The most vulnerable kids in our communities need these supports,” said Suzi Drake, an 11th-grade teacher in Bucks County, Pa.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness provisions would attempt to fix a program that began as an incentive for college graduates to become teachers and other professionals in public service by forgiving their student loan debt after 120 regular loan payments. But the program is deeply flawed: Applications are routinely rejected, and just 1 percent of applicants have had their debt forgiven, from among 32 million who qualify. Loan servicers have steered borrowers away from debt forgiveness programs, and the Department of Education has failed to monitor them or make the program accessible to those who need it most. Nieves, in Philadelphia, who is enrolled in PSLF herself, says the system is frustratingly unreliable. “People go into teaching knowing this debt burden is going to be forgiven, and they’re not getting justice,” she said.

Lobby Day

After a full day of meetings with lawmakers, many members were pleased with the connections they’d made and had promised to stay in touch with their legislators and even invite them to their schools. “It’s not enough to sit in an office and make policies,” said Amy Hewett-Olatunde, a Minnesota Teacher of the Year. “They need to see why we feel so strongly about these issues. As a public school teacher and a teacher of immigrants and refugees, advocating for an equitable and accessible education for all learners is paramount.”

“I think it’s important for us to take ownership,” said Drake. “We can mobilize for change in the future.”

[Adrienne Coles, Virginia Myers ; Michael Campbell photos]