LOS ANGELES - An energized resistance to ongoing attacks on education was on display at this year's American Federation of Teachers national convention here, July 11-14. Under the theme of "Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education," speakers and more than 3,500 delegates pledged to rebuff attacks by corporate forces on teachers, while also vowing to bring back equity in higher education for students and faculty.
Keynote speaker Rev. Dr. William Barber, founder of North Carolina's "Moral Mondays," sounded the charge in support of public education and teachers. Addressing the convention for 40 minutes, Barber developed the theme that supporting education means fighting for civil rights and helping to end racism and class oppression. "Every time we fail to educate a child on the front end of life, it costs us on the back side of life," he said. "Every time those in our nation attack teachers and undermine public education, it rips not only the nation's economy, it rips at the very integrity of who we are."
Political strategist Donna Brazile, self-described in her address as a "labor Democrat," teaches at Georgetown University and is presently organizing her fellow part-time faculty adjuncts into a union.
Brazile described the recent Vergara v. California decision as "perverse," in its ruling that teacher tenure violates the civil rights of children. Social and economic inequality are the result of bad policies that have resulted in 22% of children living today under the federal poverty line, Brazile reported.
"As a lifelong Democrat I am ashamed by attempts by some within in my own party ... who are trying to undermine public schools under the guise of reform," Brazile said. "Let me state this bluntly: the assault on public education is an assault on the principles of democracy and the foundation of our country."
Brazile introduced Democrats for Public Education, a new organization to counter Democrats for Education Reform and other billionaire-funded organizations that pour money into charters and laws rolling back union protections. Former Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio and former Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan will be working in partnership with Brazile in the new organization.
Tom Torlakson, California's Superintendent of Education, highlighted the progressive role of the California Federation of Teachers in crafting a bill in response to the crisis of education cuts, sending Proposition 30, a measure that would raise taxes on the wealthy, to the polls and winning.
Citing the adage "No good deed goes unpunished", Torlakson decried the attempts to roll back teacher protections in California by corporate interests via the Vergara v. California decision. Torlakson, facing an election year challenge from a former Wall Street trader turned charter school CEO, contrasted his own approach to doing work in education policy, bolstered by experience as a classroom teacher of many years. "I'm proud to take the teacher's approach into all of my work," he told the AFT delegates.
In the sphere of higher education, this year's convention featured the first-ever meeting of the Adjunct Caucus, a body created by adjunct activist William Lipkin and other part-time faculty, to address the lack of equity for part-time college and university instructors.
As part of the promise to reclaim quality public education, the AFT has also created a web resource addressing the challenges of contingent labor, connecting the need to end the exploitation of part-time instructors with the need to curb rising tuition costs that limit educational opportunities for students. The AFT has been conducting its own surveys of contingent faculty and creating a campaign to raise awareness of the negative effects of the over-reliance on part-timers on higher education and teachers.
Part-time faculty often have no access to benefits like health coverage. In response, the AFT has partnered with the Freelancer's Union to offer a health plan to adjunct faculty, including part-timers who are not part of the AFT. The program is slated to open for applications for the fall enrollment period.
Video of Barber's keynote speech at the AFT Convention:
Photo: A scene at the American Federation of Teachers convention, Los Angeles, July 13. AFT Facebook page