06/14/2017

Town hall features personal stories behind budget threat

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One of the best defenses against devastating cuts proposed by the Trump administration is to widely circulate and showcase personal stories behind the programs the White House aims to ax, speakers emphasized at a June 12 telephone town hall discussion on the federal budget fight.

Leaders and activists from a wide coalition of groups joined the AFT co-sponsored event, offering telling examples of how the battle against cuts is truly a fight to protect and better the education, health and life prospects of millions of children and families.

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Stories included an account from one Florida student, a girl from a broken home who said after-school programs fed her when she was hungry; provided rich, personal connections when she felt isolated; and offered the direction and support she needed to move from high school to college. "Looking back, I don't know where I would have been without after-school pushing me [and] showing me right from wrong." An Alabama mother joined the call to explain how a "fix-it" program following the regular school day sparked her son's interest in electricity, while another son found his educational footing through an after-school offering that brought solar-powered heating and cooling systems to low-income homes in their neighborhood.

These personal victories, speakers stressed, would be lost under a Trump budget that guts funding for after-school programs. And AFT President Randi Weingarten pointed out that these stories are not just anecdotes and asides but true game changers—and must be shared with policymakers at the local, state and national levels. Now is the time, Weingarten said, to show lawmakers the real costs behind the devastating reductions proposed by Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Their budget plan would swell class size, gut high-quality professional development for educators, vacate summer enrichment and learning, eviscerate before- and after-school programs, jeopardize students' health and roll back the effective wraparound services that make community schools thrive.

Federal funding has been nothing short of transformative in some hard-hit neighborhoods in Albuquerque, N.M., explained Jose Muñoz, executive director of the city's ABC Community Schools Partnership. He spoke of Emerson, a city neighborhood where community school services have curbed community flight and boosted public school enrollment. That work depends on dollars provided through the Education and Labor departments, he said, and the work must continue. "People are choosing to go to school in their neighborhood; they like what is happening to them."

That willingness to work in coalition was clearly on display during the discussion.

Joining the union in co-sponsoring the event were the Afterschool Alliance, the Coalition for Community Schools, Learning Forward, and the National Association of School Nurses. And several speakers said June 14—a national online day of action to save Title II—was an important early test. On this day, educators, parents, students and concerned citizens took their case to Congress, urging lawmakers to reject a Trump budget that would zero out Title II funding, which helps hire teachers; reduce class size; and targets federal dollars at efforts to make effective, embedded, teacher-shaped professional development a reality under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

"Title II is so critical and so essential to the professional growth of our teachers and conditions our students need," Colleen Callahan, director of educational issues for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers & Health Professionals, told the telephone audience. She spoke of districts from Cranston to West Warwick that have strengthened their focus on professional development through Title II funding, "engaging teachers in delivering as well as receiving" these supports, advancing public school efforts to close gaps in student outcomes, and providing dollars to hire teachers and reduce class size. Now, with the White House pushing Congress to eliminate Title II funding, "we are hearing that some administrators are preparing to reduce staff and increase class size," she warned. "These cuts strike at the very heart of the tools that our teachers need to succeed."

These stories need to be heard, and the AFT is playing a leading role in taking them to the corridors of power. The union launched a new online survey on the June 14 day of action, and AFT members are urged to participate in the survey as a way to put real frontline voices, concerns and outcomes at the heart of an unfolding budget debate that could shape millions of lives in the years to come.

"This budget is catastrophic for public schools and a windfall to those who want to cut taxes and profit off of kids," Weingarten said. The level of cruelty reflected in the Trump/DeVos spending blueprint "demands we join together and advocate" for children, educators, schools and neighborhoods.

[Mike Rose]