AFT members fanned out across Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 20, visiting U.S. senators, representatives and congressional staffers to show elected officials just what life is like in our public schools—and urge them toward policies that will truly support their communities.
The 110 members, who included teachers and school staff from 19 states and territories, were participating in what they called “TEACHing on the Hill,” the day before the AFT’s signature professional development conference, TEACH, kicked off across town. With a nod to the dangerous cuts already made by anti-education factions, AFT President Randi Weingarten sent them off with a lively rally and praise for their efforts. “What extremists don’t understand is that when we do the work at TEACH, we can learn about and lobby for what kids need,” she said.
Members visited 70 congressional offices, including offices of Republicans and Democrats, senators and representatives, meeting with elected officials from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), to Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.), Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-U.S. Virgin Islands), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), among others.
These AFT educators shared personal stories to illustrate the everyday impact of a host of issues related to education. Some described the urgent need to protect funding for programs like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; both are threatened by extremist Republicans with billions of dollars in cuts that would affect millions of young students. General funding is falling short as well. And while COVID-19 relief funds have helped, more permanent solutions are needed.
Other participants talked about increasing educator and staff pay, relating low pay to staff shortages, among other problems. The AFT Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force report was one resource shared in those conversations. It offers a convincing collection of data about teachers leaving the profession―and also includes a long and hopeful list of solutions to keep them in schools and on the job for students who need them.
“You have this burden to do as much as you can to really help your kids, but even with all that I’ve done, there are still shortfalls,” said Aja Crockett, an English as a second language teacher who is a member of the Boston Teachers Union. Crockett, who visited six congressional offices, is especially concerned about the lack of structure around literacy: She wound up paying from her own pocket—thousands of dollars—for a literacy training that, in the end, was an enormous benefit to her students. “All teachers should have this,” she said, but many cannot afford to get the training themselves.
In some cases, the discussions covered specific pieces of legislation that AFT members want lawmakers to support. Three bills that would increase teacher and paraprofessional pay are the Pay Teachers Act, the American Teacher Act and the Preparing and Retaining All (PARA) Educators Act, bills introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) and Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.). Educators told lawmakers about how they’ve had to take second and third jobs just to stay afloat, especially if they are trying to support a family on a paraprofessional’s pay. “It’s almost impossible,” said one.
Educators also spoke with lawmakers about the importance of reducing standardized testing to make room for more innovative and effective learning, and lobbied for endorsement of the More Teaching Less Testing Act, introduced by Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), as one possible solution. Others urged legislators to work on increasing school safety, as the nation faces continuing gun violence.