Writing from the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 28, AFT president Randi Weingarten talks about the AFT's long-standing commitment to human and civil rights—including the idea that access to an excellent education should be seen as a basic civil right. She looks back at Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and his call for the country to meet the unfulfilled promise of equality, dignity and opportunity for all children:
"We've heard a lot of great speeches in Denver this week, and I have no doubt that Barack Obama's speech tonight will be among them. But it's a speech delivered 45 years ago today that's been running through my head recently. I'm thinking, of course, of the 'I Have a Dream' speech in which Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of America's unfulfilled promise of equality, dignity and opportunity for all, and of his hopes for the kind of nation his 'four little children'—and all our children—would one day live in.
"I am profoundly proud that the union of which I became president last month, the American Federation of Teachers, was a major supporter of the March on Washington and the civil rights movement. And I am proud that, through the work the AFT does, our dedication to civil and human rights has never stopped. As I said in my remarks at the Democratic convention earlier this week, access to an excellent education is a basic civil right. In all we do, the AFT works to make this basic right a reality for all our children.
"I can just imagine how the detractors of teachers and their unions would respond to that statement. But I would respectfully ask them to dust off their notions of what the AFT and our members actually do and stand for. Those who know us know that the AFT has a proud history as a union that not only accepts innovation and reform, but also is a driving force behind bold new measures to improve public schools.
"As Barack Obama said last night, we must create conditions in which good ideas can flourish from the bottom up. Throughout the AFT's history, we have seen innovation that bubbles up from teachers and their unions, relies on classroom experience and focuses on raising student achievement. Those ideas have a pretty good track record.
"Unfortunately, we also have seen attempts to force unproven ideas on schools in order to push a political agenda. Those ideas don't help children learn.
"We have seen sincere people who discount the need to consider the expertise and opinions of teachers when they set education policies. This approach doesn't work either.
"Ideas that are equally off-base were promoted at a forum here in Denver just before the kickoff of the Democratic convention. Under the guise of education equity, former Gov. Roy Roemer and Mayors Cory Booker and Adrian Fenty suggested that teachers' collective bargaining agreements are an impediment to education reform. Maybe if they had included teachers in the discussion (which they did not), they would have learned that student achievement tends to be significantly higher in areas with collective bargaining rights for teachers, and that many unions are the driving force behind successful reform efforts in their schools and districts. Evidently, though, learning was not the true purpose of that forum.
"Of course, there was plenty of progressive thinking about education here in Denver as well. For example, just the day after the teachers union bash-fest, I attended a luncheon with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, who has demonstrated true leadership. She talked about how she has improved schools in her state by forming partnerships with teachers and working with us every step of the way.
"I can point to similar examples across the country. In Cerritos, Calif., the school district and our affiliate are working together to overcome obstacles and improve student achievement. Current and former mayors in places like Baltimore, Boston and San Francisco see unions as partners in improving their cities and their schools. In each case, mayors turned to unions to help solve problems — together.
"The truth is that what we do in our schools should be about the children and what works for them — not about whose policy, project or flavor-of-the-month reform is going to be adopted as part of the Democratic platform, not about whose name gets attached to an education policy or which camp wins.
"Barack Obama understands that. That's why I am thrilled to be at this convention. He has made it clear that education will be a top priority in his administration. Contrast that with John McCain, who could barely bring himself to include a serious education policy on his Web site.
"Barack Obama understands what it will take to improve our schools, turn around our economy, and put this country back on track. He also understands that teachers and unions are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
"When he addressed more than 3,000 delegates at the AFT's convention in July, he noted that the AFT demonstrates the right way to improve schools, through reforms 'developed with teachers, not imposed on them.'
"It's easy to understand why Barack Obama's vision for a better America has earned him such strong support across the country. Americans know we can't afford four more years of the same old divisive politics and failed policies. We need real solutions and a new way of doing business in Washington. We need to usher in a new era in education where every child can achieve to his or her God-given potential. And the American Federation of Teachers is going to do everything we can to help Barack Obama become the next president of the United States."
August 28, 2008