Talking with the candidates

AFT leaders and members know all too well that elections matter. That's why we are committed to using our collective voice to help give pro-public education, pro-worker candidates the strongest possible base to win—because we know what happens to workers when the other guys win (I'm looking at you, Wisconsin).

Our members have told us that the economy and public education are their top concerns heading into 2016. At kitchen tables across the country, families are having serious conversations about their neighborhood public schools and their ability to get ahead and stay ahead. Since we place an extraordinary value on ensuring our members' voices are heard, part of any endorsement process must be engaging our members and leaders. Our goal is not only that the presidential candidates hear the voices of working families, but also that the conversation about public education and our economy extends from the kitchen table to the campaign trail.

As part of that process, all declared and assumed candidates—from both parties—were invited to complete a candidate questionnaire and, if they did, to address AFT leaders and members. Spoiler alert: None of the Republican candidates bothered to return their questionnaires, but all of the true Democrats with their hats in the ring took the time to engage with us. On Tuesday, June 2, and Wednesday, June 3, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders attended the American Federation of Teachers executive council meeting as part of the union's endorsement process.

Leaders on the AFT executive council and seven rank-and-file members selected from the "You Decide" page on our website got to hear what the candidates had to say and ask questions of their own. Just look at some of their questions:

Don Carlisto, a middle school teacher in Saranac Lake, N.Y., broached the topic of testing, asking, "Which policies will your administration advance that represent a shift away from labeling students and schools failures and shaming and blaming educators, to support, encouragement and respect for all education stakeholders?"

Sandra Davis, a Baltimore City Public Schools employee for 25 years, asked, "What would your administration do to continue the fight against high student debt? Would you consider a tax credit or continuing education credit for paying on time? Or are there specific measures you would have implemented to assist them?"

And Nina Tribble, a recent retiree (congrats!) from Queens, N.Y., concerned with her retirement security, asked, "Are you in favor of eliminating the arbitrary cap that benefits the wealthiest 6 percent so that we ALL contribute to Social Security at the same rate on our earnings, and will you be willing to lower the eligibility age and increase the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that would make Social Security more viable to everyone?"

Read the members' blogs and watch their videos.

These were not easy questions, and the candidates took the time to address each one in a thoughtful manner. The key takeaway was that in order to enact real change for our members, they must be brought into the conversation and have their expertise and their voices heard and respected.

Excerpts from the candidates' introductory remarks can be found below:

Hillary Clinton:
Randi Weingarten and Hillary Clinton. Photo by Michael Campbell."I think we are at a very pivotal turning point. I've been traveling around the country, and I've been listening to people and hearing what Americans are thinking about. And I am absolutely convinced that education must be at the top of our agenda again. So I am putting it at the heart of my campaign. … We can build a stronger, fairer, more inclusive America where once again parents feel like they can give their kids real choices and opportunities. Every single child should be able to start learning early at home, in child care settings, at pre-K, and then go off to public school with teachers who are going to be able to support them and who have the respect and dignity that comes with the teaching profession.

"I want to work with you to make sure we do what needs to be done based on evidence, not ideology. … And from what I've seen, all of the evidence, and my own personal experience, says that the most important and impactful thing we can do for our public schools is to recruit, support and retain the highest-quality educators. It is just dead wrong to make teachers the scapegoats for all of society's problems. Where I come from, teachers are the solution. And I strongly believe that unions are part of the solution, too."

Martin O'Malley:
Randi Weingarten and Martin O'Malley. Photo by Michael Campbell."We need to build up our own economy. And there is no work more important than the work that so many of you are engaged in. … I have a tremendous amount of respect for the profession of teaching. As a governor and as mayor, I have always worked in partnership with [union leaders]. I don't know how these other guys think. … How do you improve public education if you vilify and turn into enemies the teachers that are responsible for our children? ...

"We believe that the more a person learns, the more a person earns and the better that is for our entire economy. One of the most important things we can do to give our country to our kids and restore the truth of the American dream is to improve education and access to higher education for the next generation of Americans. You know that and I know that. It is a building block of this American dream that we share."

Bernie Sanders:
Randi Weingarten and Bernie Sanders. Photo by Michael Campbell."Thousands of schools across this country do not have enough money to provide quality education to our kids, at the same time that the Republicans have just given a huge tax break in their budget to the wealthiest two-tenths of 1 percent, over $200 billion in the next 10 years. The issue is getting our priorities right. You have 25 hedge fund managers who, a few years ago, made as much money as 435,000 public school teachers. Is that what America is supposed to be about? …

"I am calling for a political revolution in this country, and what that means in English is not arguing about whether we cut education by 3 percent or 6 percent, but we're arguing about changing fundamentally the priorities of this nation. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Today. Why in God's name is there any school in America talking about cutting back?"

We've got some time before November 2016, but listening to the voices of our members, the backbone of the AFT, has never been more important. I am ecstatic about the high level of engagement we've seen from our leaders and members up to this point, and am excited for what is to come. Keep those thoughts, questions and concerns coming—you decide how this election turns out.