With Election Day less than three weeks away, the AFT Votes bus tour rolled into the upper Midwest, with stops in Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana over the last several days.
Along the way, AFT President Randi Weingarten and Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick C. Ingram urged educators, parents and community allies to vote—early, if possible—and discussed the obstacles teachers and students face because of a lack of the resources needed to support learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the trip, the AFT leaders are aiming to increase voter turnout—and urging voters to reject President Donald Trump and choose former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris to make a new beginning.“Do we move forward, or do we go backward?” Weingarten asked people at one stop on the tour. “It’s hope and community versus fear and chaos. It’s our moment, but we have to get out and vote.”
At an Oct. 10 event in Lakeville, Minn., on the southern edge of the Twin Cities metro area, Weingarten and Ingram joined Education Minnesota President Denise Specht for a get-out-the-vote event that featured the Minnesota governor along with two members of Congress and several AFT members.
Weingarten told the gathering that this year, “It is so important to bring community together, to bring the nation back together. That is what Vice President Biden and Sen. Harris want to do.”
As Specht introduced Gov. Tim Walz, she declared, “Educators need to exercise their right to vote in this election, to build strong public schools and communities where all of our children—no matter what they look like or where they come from—can thrive and pursue their dreams.”
Walz, a former teacher and Education Minnesota member, said, “We need to have people in elective office who understand what this job means. We don’t have time for any more of the chaos, drama and nonsense.” Other officials speaking at the event included U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, whose district includes the Lakeville area. Erin Preese, a Lakeville teacher who is running for the state Legislature, also spoke.
Leah Hood, another Lakeville teacher, emphasized how important it is that educators be heard by decision-makers at all levels. “Teacher voice is important because students cannot get what they need when teachers don’t get what we need,” she said. “We cannot put students first if we continue to put teachers last.”
Ingram said he believes America needs a new president. In explaining why, he said, “My one and only issue: I want to fire [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos.”
In closing the program, Weingarten said, “This is the most consequential election of our lifetime.” That’s why she’s on the road with the AFT Votes bus tour, which continues through the end of October.
“Every day,” she said, “President Trump will create more and more fear. Every day, he will create more chaos. There is one thing we can do to combat that—and that is to vote.”
This week, the bus moved on to Illinois and Indiana, with stops in Chicago and Gary on Oct. 14.
At a news conference in a South Side Chicago neighborhood, Weingarten and Ingram joined Chicago Teachers Union leaders and members to call for passage of the Illinois Fair Tax amendment on the November ballot, and to urge all community members to get out and vote.
The Fair Tax proposal is intended to address the inequity in the current state tax system under which billionaires pay the same tax rate as low-wage workers and middle-class families. It would raise the rate only for those making more than $250,000 a year.
CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said, “It is past time that those in the very top tier provide some fairness for the entire state.”
Weingarten agreed. In Illinois, she said, “the billionaires have had control of the tax system.” That means they pay the same tax rate as a bus driver, a schoolteacher or a paraprofessional. The proposal would mean that everyone would be “paying your fair share, nothing more,” she said.
The AFT leader also called on all CTU members to vote and to get their families and friends to do the same. “Change is coming if people vote,” she said. “If you vote, we will have progress in this nation.”
A Biden-Harris administration would confront the multiple crises facing the nation, Weingarten said, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic recession, climate change and systemic racism.
Ingram added his voice to the call for voter participation. “We want to make sure that this president has a chance to get retired,” he said. “We have to make this vote too big to rig.”
From Chicago, the AFT Votes bus rolled into Indiana, with stops in East Chicago and Gary.
At a rally with East Chicago educators, Weingarten and Ingram supported their fight against being forced to work in unsafe school buildings during the pandemic. Due at least in part to the school district’s layoffs of custodians, the schools are not cleaned well enough to protect the health of students and staff.
“We must make sure we do everything we can to keep our teachers and students safe,” Weingarten said. “We want schools to reopen safely. We are here because the superintendent is not listening.”
In Gary, Weingarten and Ingram urged passage of a ballot referendum that would increase revenue for public schools. The AFT president said the local tax proposal would help fill in the public education funding gaps left by long-term economic downturns in Gary—gaps that should have been the state’s responsibility but were not addressed when Indiana governors turned instead to privatization supported by vouchers that drained money from public schools.
She commended GlenEva Dunham, president of both the Gary AFT and Indiana AFT, for working with school district emergency manager Paige McNulty to campaign for passage of the school referendum. “This referendum is a social equity issue,” Weingarten said. “Education leaders in Gary are creating hope.”
Back at the beginning of this segment of the bus tour, Weingarten and Ingram visited the memorial in Minneapolis at the site where George Floyd was killed by police officers.
Also on Oct. 9 at an event in Anoka, Minn., just north of the Twin Cities, Weingarten, Ingram and Specht listened as teachers and parents described the challenges they have faced since the new school year began. For many of them who are implementing a hybrid learning model, this has meant creating two plans for every lesson—one for in-person teaching and one for online use.
“In order to do hybrid learning,” Weingarten observed, “you actually need double the number of teachers, double the amount of space, double the number of ESPs. But that costs money, and that should have been provided by the federal government.”
Local school districts cannot meet those increased needs alone, she said. “There must be some federal guidance and resources.”
The Trump administration, including Education Secretary DeVos, is not providing the needed support, Weingarten said. They have to “fight the virus, not fight the scientists,” she added.
“What you’re seeing across the country is a patchwork of failure by the federal government when it comes to our students and our educators,” she said. “Listen to the teachers, listen to the parents, listen to our kids—we need to get through this together.”
Also speaking at the Anoka event were teachers and parents from several nearby school districts. Erika Jagiella, a special education teacher from the White Bear Lake Area Schools, observed that teachers are experiencing both extremes of the emotional and physical well-being spectrum as they try to cope with the pandemic.
“Educators are finding themselves overworked, overwhelmed and exhausted,” she said. But at the same time, she added, they are committed to their students and communities. “We can do this,” Jagiella said. “We are educators. We were born to change history, and we are doing just that.”