BOSTON—American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addressed more than 3,000 delegates today at the union’s 87th biennial convention, launching a landmark What Kids and Communities Need campaign and challenging the union’s 1.7 million members to fight for freedom and democracy, uphold decency and dignity, and “knit the rich tapestry of our country together … by rebuilding the essential foundations for a better life for all.”
In a wide-ranging State of the Union speech, Weingarten called out the politicization of schools and students. “Too many politicians … stoke grievances rather than solve problems. They should be helping us help our kids and our communities, not making it harder with their culture wars and division,” she said. “Here’s how I see it: This moment can be viewed through the lens of fear or hope; despair or aspiration; self-interest or the greater good. The members of this union definitively, defiantly and undeniably choose hope, aspiration and the greater good.”
She also honored and thanked the members for their heroic work. Healthcare members were on the frontlines of the pandemic, caring for patients, and the union secured $3 million worth of personal protective equipment to keep them safe. In 2021, the union launched a $5 million Back to School for All initiative serving 20 million students, helping safely reopen school buildings and supporting summer school enrichment programs, vaccination clinics and after-school reading support.
What Kids and Communities Need is a new effort to invest in public schools and communities and challenge elected officials on the federal, state and local levels to lead on education. The campaign centers around the essentials that kids need to recover and thrive, instead of politics and division: It focuses on commonsense initiatives like promoting reading and career and technical education, addressing the teacher shortage, investing in school-based enrichment programs that support student success, and encouraging candidates and elected leaders to get “back to basics” on public education.
The AFT is also urging parents and teachers to take action—by voting against politicians who are focused on things like book banning, culture wars and injecting division into our classrooms, rather than investing in mental health resources, literacy programs and efforts to reduce class sizes.
“While extremist politicians are trying to drive a wedge between parents and teachers by banning books, censoring curriculum and politicizing public education, we’re focused on investing in public schools and the essential knowledge and skills students need,” Weingarten said. “We’re focused on accelerating learning, not just catching up. We are fighting for the conditions students need to thrive, like state-of-the-art buildings, with good ventilation, smaller class sizes and mental health resources.”
The speech acknowledged that despite the remarkable work of AFT members nationwide, partisan extremists are hell-bent on “dividing Americans from one another, spreading lies and hate, and breaking all the democratic norms to enrich themselves and grab power.” In fact, recent polling shows that Americans are fed up with politicians trying to politicize public schools and instead, want to prioritize teaching fundamental skills.
Weingarten encouraged delegates to remain focused on the essentials that help bring people together and build a better life: safety, including commonsense gun safety and protections for LGBTQIA+ students; partnerships between parents and educators; and the knowledge and skills kids need to thrive in today’s world. And she reminded them that 88 percent of the public believes educators and schools did all they could to help children during the pandemic.
Journey for Justice Alliance National Director Jitu Brown called the campaign an important step in the fight for educational equity for all students, saying: “It is way overdue to focus on equity, providing children what they need to reach their full potential. We cannot get there if we are not honest about our failures. We will not take our eyes off the prize; equity or else.”
The campaign’s specific commitments include:
- Awarding $1.5 million in grants to parents and teachers through the AFT Powerful Partnerships Institute to support community engagement by helping parents and teachers find new ways to work together for the benefit of kids.
- Advocating for commonsense policies—improved climate, culture, conditions and compensation—to address the teacher shortage and teacher burnout through the AFT Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force.
- Quadrupling the number of community schools over the next five years. Community schools help children and families get the healthcare, food assistance and other essentials they need in one place. The AFT and its affiliates already support more than 700 such schools nationwide.
- Promoting, supporting and extending critical career and technical education programs, and offering students reliable, accessible pathways to college and career opportunities. From cybersecurity to culinary arts, aviation and auto and transit tech to healthcare and green jobs—high-quality CTE programs can equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need for career and life, and can serve as a catalyst for community partnerships like those in McDowell County, W.Va., and a new program in New Lexington, Ohio.
- Encouraging kids to read more and improve their reading skills through a campaign to give away 1 million books so that they have books to read at home. The AFT has already distributed 612,686 books during Reading Opens the World events hosted by more than 100 local affiliates in 20 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Once the initiative reaches the 1 million mark, the AFT will commit to giving away 2 million books.
Red, Wine and Blue founder Katie Paris welcomed What Kids and Communities Need, saying: “Parent-teacher collaboration is key to student success, and we’re not about to let right-wing extremists tear us apart. We reject political division and embrace public education because we believe in the strength of our communities and the ideals of our country. Unlike the extreme politicians using our kids to distract and divide us, the parent-teacher team will always put our kids first.”
Weingarten told delegates they have a crucial role to play in these fraught moments. And she recognized that each member is in their important profession for a reason, heralding the AFT’s advocacy in repairing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which has wiped $8.1 billion of borrowers’ debt. She lauded the more than 100 AFT locals that joined the March for Our Lives in its National Day of Action for gun safety.
Weingarten urged members to organize and mobilize and to use the power of the union as a force for good in these perilous economic times. She reminded them of the broad popularity of labor unions, saying, “There is power in the union. Two-thirds of Americans support unions, the highest level since 1965. And nearly half of nonunion workers say they would join a union in their workplace if they had the chance. …This is the moment for our movement. Unions built the middle class in America, and we can rebuild it through the transformative power of collective bargaining. The essence of unionism is simple yet powerful: Together we can accomplish things that would be impossible alone.”
She reminded members that with its roots in social justice, the union carries a unique responsibility to stand up for democracy, freedom and the sanctity of basic institutions, calling this moment in history a 10-alarm fire, and urging members to keep in mind that “everything is at risk: our freedoms, our democracy, our basic economic safety net.”
Weingarten ended with a particularly poignant call to action—to get out and vote, but also to acknowledge the basic humanity of all people, and to leave the convention feeling motivated, with a plan of action: “To stand up and be counted. To live our convictions. To engage, not withdraw.
“No matter how tired or how frustrated we are, we cannot be bystanders.”
The full text of the speech can be found here.