Education unions, universities launch fight for freedoms campaign
New College of Florida graduating students attend the college's "alternative commencement," May 18, 2023, in Sarasota, Fl. On Tuesday, Aug. 15, students and professors from New College of Florida sued Florida education officials, claiming a new law outlawing spending on diversity programs, curbing professors' tenure security and prohibiting the teaching of "identity politics" in Florida schools violates their constitutional rights by censoring academic freedom. | Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP

WASHINGTON —The nation’s two big education unions, the Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association, plus 1,000 higher education institutions, have launched a fight for educational freedoms. It’s a mass campaign to combat the right-wing crusade to destroy public schools and democracy with them.

In a joint statement at the annual Network for Public Education conference in D.C., the NEA and the AFT–which together have more than four million members–the American Association of University Professors, the network itself, and the American Association of Colleges and Universities all blasted the right-wing assault on teachers, schools and students.

“Simply put, the assault on public education is an assault on our freedom,” the statement says.

Left unsaid: The political, class, and racial aspects of the combat. The right-wingers are overwhelmingly white “Christian” Republicans who hate unions, public schools, and students of color. And a significant group of them have the cash to home-school or private-school their kids.

Students of color are a majority of public school kids. So the right-wing wants to defund the public schools, by shifting money away from them to vouchers, charters, or for-profit firms that some districts hire to run their schools.

The coalition, assembled by network founder Diane Ravitch—a noted critic of “charter” schools in particular and privatization in general—will “call out laws and rhetoric in multiple states aimed at banning books and curriculums, attacking teachers, and shaming LGBTQIA+ students while pushing voucher and privatization schemes to undermine and gut public education.”

Their plan is “to show how far-right attacks on public education and academic freedom, which span K-12 and college, are part of the same extremist push to hurt learning and undermine trust in public schools.”

And they’re proposing solutions to stop the rightists in their tracks, too. One is more money for public schools and, for Ravitch especially, a shutoff of the public spigot of funds to vouchers and to the so-called “charter” schools, which right-wingers also use to undermine teachers and their unions.

It also includes fighting state laws to censor what teachers teach and to strip them of tenure and other job protections. If necessary, its members, especially AFT, will go to court to defend teachers who refuse to toe the right-wing line.

One joint NEA-AFT affiliate, the Florida Education Association, faces the worst assault of all: Censorship, “don’t say gay” laws, racist whitewashing, abolition of tenure, ending payroll deductions for union dues, and decertifying unions every year unless 60% of all members approve of unions.

It’s fighting back by suing right-wing Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s pushed all the measures through the GOP-gerrymandered legislature as HB256. FEA says that law violates the state constitution’s guarantees of equal educational opportunity for kids and collective bargaining rights for teachers.

It’s not just rhetoric, laws, and lack of money that threaten public schools, though. The right-wingers also invade and intimidate school boards under the guise of “parental choice.” Congressional right-wingers, led by union-hater Education and the Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., are busy accusing Democratic President Joe Biden’s Education Department of abuses.

Right-wingers also manipulate curriculum by whitewashing racism out of textbooks and banning its discussion, as well as diversity and inclusion, from classrooms. And the right erects alternatives—vouchers, charters, and for-profit “public” schools–which feed corporate coffers at the expense of kids’ learning.

“Public education—pre-K through higher ed—is a fundamental pillar of American democracy,” the joint statement says. “Attempts to control and reshape education are part of a larger effort to weaken the institutions that prepare students to engage in a robust, vibrant, multicultural, pluralistic democracy.”

That’s what they’re trying via charters in Philadelphia, author and conference participant Nikhil Goyal told Ravitch in a recent podcast after eight years of embedding himself in the city’s poorest neighborhood, living with and interviewing parents, students, and teachers.

“The charter school movement was hijacked by billionaires, philanthropists, and corporate school reformers to advance their mission of privatizing, defunding, and undermining public education,” Goyal concluded.

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Press Associates
Press Associates

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.