Biden: Teachers and kids must be safe from gunfire in schools
Gun control was the major topic of Biden's remarks at a ceremony in the Rose Garden where he honored the Teacher of the Year. | The White House/Twitter

WASHINGTON—Teachers and kids must be safe from gunfire in schools, which is why Congress should pass strong gun-control legislation, Democratic President Joe Biden says.

Biden hit that theme while honoring the National Teacher of the Year, union member Rebecka Peterson, a high school math and calculus teacher from Tulsa, Okla. In a White House Rose Garden ceremony. He also threw a few sharp jabs at congressional Republicans, whose leader, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., wants to cut federal education funding by 22%.

First Lady Jill Biden, a community college professor with a doctorate, added to that general critique, though she didn’t mention guns or call out the GOP by name.

Peterson, the daughter of a Swedish mother and an Iranian father, became a naturalized citizen at 20 after being brought to the U.S. as a child. The member of the National Education Association and its Oklahoma affiliate stayed away from politics.

Left unspoken by anyone: Oklahoma is a deep-red state whose Republican majority—voters and lawmakers—love guns, hate unions, and scrimp on school funding. It’s 38th in teacher pay, the latest state-by-state data, which NEA released that morning in its annual report on school spending, shows.

And teachers in union-friendly states earn 25% more than their colleagues in the same posts in so-called right-to-work states like Oklahoma, adjusted for inflation, NEA reported. Support staffers—bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, librarians, aides, and others—earn 15% more. But even with that premium, one-third of all support staffers nationwide earn less than $25,000.

The president declared teachers need both unionization and a raise, themes he’s hit in other speeches and in legislation he pushed through the last Congress. Then he pivoted.

“We passed the most significant bipartisan gun safety law in 30 years” in the last Congress “because teachers now find themselves on the frontlines, and gun violence is a real problem. We want to do more. I continue to call on Congress for commonsense gun safety laws to protect kids and our teachers.

“Teaching should not be a life-threatening profession, and educators should not need to be armed to feel safe in a classroom,” he added, to applause.

It was no surprise Biden hit the gun control theme in his remarks. That morning, he met with the three Tennessee state representatives, Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, and Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, who stood up for further gun control in the Volunteer State.

They acted, leading a packed gallery in pro-gun control chants after a shooter killed the school headmaster, two other adults, and three 9-year-olds in a Christian school. The GOP supermajority in the Tennessee House responded by instead depriving Jones and Pearson, both first-term Black men, from their seats. Their local city-county councils have since returned them to the legislature. Johnson, a white woman and a longtime teacher, survived by one vote and said it was because of skin color.

In the Rose Garden ceremony, Jill Biden was less pointed but nonetheless noted that certain interests in the U.S.—she didn’t name them, but didn’t have to—use teachers and public schools as political punching bags. And in those same states, they lag behind in school funding, the latest data on the issue, state-by-state, show. NEA released the data the same morning.

“Never forget that, student by student, the lives you change go on to change the world,” Jill Biden said. “I think that message matters more than ever. Because lately, when I turn on the TV, I see pundits and politicians talking about our profession. I hear them attacking our public schools, distorting the truth about what we do, and saying that parents and teachers are at odds.

“But that’s not what I’ve seen. As I’ve traveled this country, I’ve visited some pretty amazing programs where parents and teachers are working hand in hand to help kids overcome challenges and make our schools better for everyone.”

Schoolkids “need kindness and respect. They need grace and the chance to make mistakes. They need room to explore this world, to be curious and surprised and disappointed and triumphant. They need to know that they are valued and safe. And parents can’t always do that alone. Parents don’t want to do that alone.”

“I’ve been lucky to witness the beauty of our nation from a, perhaps, different lens–a lens that pays special attention to those people who wrap their arms around those of us who may be a little bit different,” Peterson said. “Often, those people who held me, literally and figuratively, were my teachers. They channeled their influence for good. And I was always in awe of the power that they held.

“’Bearer of good news,’ the meaning of my Iranian name, is the phrase I’ve spent my career leaning into. Just like my own teachers, my fellow state teachers of the year, and the millions of other teachers in this country, I want to bring the good news of joy and hope to my students, and reciprocate that gift of education that my teachers gave me.

“As educators, we stand with one foot firmly grounded in the reality of what is while the other stands in the promise of what can be. We are fueled by the equalizing power of public education.”

While guns are a top social issue for deep-red Oklahoma’s ruling Republicans, education funding is a lower priority there and in other red states, according to NEA’s annual report.

Nationally, the average public-school teacher earned $66,745 in the 2021-22 school year, NEA calculates, using state salary data. That’s 2% more than the school year before, NEA’s annual analysis says. Adjusted for inflation, that’s also $3,644 less per year than in 2012-13. New York was first in average pay, followed by Massachusetts, California, and D.C. Oklahoma was 38th, at $54,804, about $7,500 above the living wage for a family there.

The bottom four states were Mississippi in 51st (last), West Virginia, South Dakota, and Florida, whose teachers are a favorite political target of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state’s GOP legislative supermajority.

We hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, please support great working-class and pro-people journalism by donating to People’s World.

We are not neutral. Our mission is to be a voice for truth, democracy, the environment, and socialism. We believe in people before profits. So, we take sides. Yours!

We are part of the pro-democracy media contesting the vast right-wing media propaganda ecosystem brainwashing tens of millions and putting democracy at risk.

Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader supported. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all.

But we need your help. It takes money—a lot of it—to produce and cover unique stories you see in our pages. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.