AFT President Randi Weingarten Delivers Major National Address ‘In Defense of Public Education’
WASHINGTON—American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has issued a clarion call to defend public education, transform learning and support children as the institution comes under existential threat from extremist, culture-war peddling politicians.
In an address to the National Press Club, the leader of the 1.7 million-member union urged civil society to fight for the future of public schools and help kids learn in the face of relentless attacks from the far-right intent on dismantling the schools that 90 percent of kids attend.
“Attacks on public education are not new. The difference today is that the attacks are intended to destroy it. To make it a battlefield, a political cudgel,” Weingarten said.
“But we also must do better to address the learning loss and disconnection we are seeing in our young people. We can make every public school a school where parents want to send their kids, educators want to work and all students thrive.”
Weingarten outlined a four-part plan to help kids’ recovery and reclaim the purpose and promise of public education: 25,000 community schools, experiential learning for all kids including career and technical education, the revival and restoration of the teaching profession, and deepened partnerships with parents and the community.
From book bans and censorship of honest history to the removal and rejection of Black, LGBTQIA+ and minority students’ existence and experiences, MAGA lawmakers have used culture wars to divide communities and other schemes that drain resources from public education.
“The Betsy DeVos wing of the school privatization movement is methodically working its plan: Starve public schools of the funds they need to succeed. Criticize them for their shortcomings. Erode trust in public schools by stoking fear and division, including attempting to pit parents against teachers. Replace them with private, religious, online and home schools.
“All toward their end goal of destroying public education as we know it, atomizing and balkanizing education in America, bullying the most vulnerable among us and leaving the students with the greatest needs with the most meager resources.”
Weingarten began with a moment of silence in honor of the children and adults killed in Nashville and renewed her call for an assault weapons ban and commonsense gun safety measures.
She launched a Freedom to Teach and Learn hotline for parents, in conjunction with the Campaign for Our Shared Future, for educators and the public to report instances of political interference and censorship. Poll after poll has shown that parents and voters don’t want politicized culture wars, they want schools and administrators to focus on what kids and communities need.
The hotline—888-873-7227—will serve as a clearinghouse for reports of political interference. If Americans see something, they should say something.
“It’s a place to call if you’ve been told to remove a book from the curriculum or from the library, if you’ve been told that there are topics that can’t be discussed in your classes or that you cannot teach honestly and appropriately, or if politicians in your district or state are targeting vulnerable student groups to score political points.”
Rejecting the far-right’s fearmongering, Weingarten outlined four essential strategies to promote greater investment and family and community engagement as an antidote to the tarring of schools with the politics of division and hate.
Expanding community schools, scaling experiential learning, addressing staff shortages, and deepening the partnership between families and educators “can help us create safe and welcoming environments and bring joy back to learning.”
Community schools wrap academic counseling services, nutrition services, primary health and dental care, and much more around traditional schools to transform them into hubs that connect families and students with supports to learn and live. Weingarten called for 25,000 more community schools by 2025, noting that California just approved an investment of $45 million for community schools and that President Joe Biden has doubled federal community schools funding.
Experiential learning is based on the idea that students learn—and become engaged with the world, new ideas and each other—by doing. In one application, career and technical education, students use their minds and their hands to learn everything from welding and auto repair to nursing, IT, graphic design, plumbing, culinary skills and hospitality.
“Experiential learning embeds the things that make kids want to be in school. The excitement of learning that is deeply engaging, and the joy of being together, especially after the isolation of the last few years. The camaraderie and responsibility of working together on a team. And in the age of AI and chatGPT, this type of learning is critical to being able to think and write, solve problems, apply knowledge and discern fact from fiction.”
The formula of starting by high school and identifying school-to-career pathways, including community colleges, partnering with employers, and ensuring the opportunities are paid, can be replicated everywhere.
The AFT is working closely on CTE and robust workforce strategy with the AFL-CIO, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and the Bloomberg Foundation and is reaching out to other business groups large and small.
Weingarten would also renew and revive the teaching profession “by treating educators as the professionals they are, with appropriate pay; time to plan and prepare for classes, to collaborate with colleagues, and to participate in meaningful professional development; and the power to make day-to-day classroom decisions.”
To achieve this, the entire community must be involved and engaged at every juncture. Weingarten called for a deepening of the connection between parents, educators, employers and the community.
The AFT has ramped up its Powerful Partnerships Institute, distributing 27 grants to locals totaling more than $1.5 million. For example, Montana is engaging thousands of public education-supporting families and educators across the state around a shared agenda. And New Haven is working with educators, families and students on equitable school funding across Connecticut.
Weingarten ended by underlining the tipping point facing the nation on public schools with a rallying cry for allies to join her and the AFT in the fight ahead.
“This is our agenda. But this can’t just be the work of our union or of school staff and schools alone. This is the work of a great nation—to ensure that our children’s basic human needs are met so they are ready to learn to their full potential.
“Our public schools shouldn’t be pawns for politicians’ ambitions. Or defunded and destroyed by ideologues. We are at a crossroads: Fear and division, or hope and opportunity. A great nation does not fear people being educated. A great nation does not fear pluralism. A great nation chooses freedom, democracy, equality and opportunity.
“All of that starts in our public schools.”
Weingarten’s full speech can be read here.
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The AFT represents 1.7 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.