Teachers: We will defend nation’s schools against right-wing authoritarianism
NEA president Becky Pringle | NEA

CHICAGO —Becky Pringle and Kim Anderson have sharp messages for the nation’s right-wingers who despise public school teachers, their students, and everyone who doesn’t genuflect to the rightists’ mantras: We, the teachers, will defend our students and our schools against your threats and authoritarianism—and come after you at the ballot box.

Pringle, president of the nation’s largest union, the National Education Association, and Anderson, its executive director, threw down the gauntlet in the first two days—July 3-4—of the union’s 6,000-delegate Representative Assembly, held at Chicago’s McCormick Place.

Democratic President Joe Biden followed Pringle to the podium, but via zoom, for a two-minute address on July 3. Unlike her—and unlike his live appearance just weeks before at the AFL-CIO—he didn’t talk politics.

Instead, Biden reiterated the importance of unions: “I will keep my promise to be the most pro-union president in history because I know how much unions mean to America.”

And Biden touted his $130 billion for schools included in the American Rescue Act—the first money bill to battle the impact of the coronavirus-caused depression. Both NEA and the Teachers (AFT), whose convention opens in Boston on July 14, lobbied hard for the funds. “Your right to bargain collectively” is also key to improving schools, Biden said.

What Biden didn’t say, but the White House admitted by implication on July 5, is that much if not most of the money has gone unspent. It unveiled a new initiative—the National Partnership for School Success—between states, local school boards, businesses, and others to break that gridlock, and hire 250,000 more teachers and mentors for U.S. schools.

“Today, President Biden is calling on schools to use the $122 billion in ARP funds to provide high-quality tutoring, summer learning, and enrichment, and afterschool programs that are proven pathways to helping students make up for lost learning time “due to the pandemic —at least two to four months’ worth per student—”and succeed in school and in life, including by supporting their mental health, the White House fact sheet for the partnership says.

Pringle didn’t mention the funding problems in her speech, nor did Anderson. The fight against the right took up big sections, though not all, of their speeches.

“NEA, in 2022, our generation is being called to teach, and lead and heal this nation.,” declared Pringle, a Philadelphia science teacher. “We are being called to defend freedom during its hour of maximum danger. And we, the NEA, welcome that calling.

“We will begin by placing every candidate for political office on notice: If you refuse to keep our schools safe while calling on us to take up arms, if you disrespect us as educators and refuse to pay us as professionals, if you disregard or deliberately fuel the inequities that impact our students’ ability to learn, if you continue to wage a concerted effort to disinvest in and destroy our public schools know this: One in every 10 households in this country has an NEA member!”  The union has more than three million members, in every state and territory.

“Just as we did in the presidential election of 2020, we will make sure you know who we are. If you stand against our students, we will stand against you. If you vote against our educators, we will vote against you. This November, if you get in the way of our progress toward a more just nation, we will get in the way of your election,” she vowed.

Pringle declared NEA will “lead a movement that unites not just our members, but this entire nation, to reclaim public education as a common good, and then transform it into something it was never designed to be—a racially and socially just and equitable system that prepares every student, every one, to succeed in this diverse and interdependent world.

“At this RA, we will unpack that big ol’ vision together. We’ll imagine, how it would actually look in its fullness; determine what we need to do, together, to ensure “all students, all educators, and all schools are excelling and everyone knows it!”

Rights being stripped away

“And we will do that work understanding that the rights many of us have spent a lifetime fighting to secure, are being stripped away in our lifetimes.”

Anderson, parent of several public school students, singled out former Republican Oval Office occupant Donald Trump, though not by name, and his MAGA movement for criticism. She also blasted extreme Supreme Court rulings that further shove religion into schools and openly carried guns everywhere. And she hung the “authoritarianism” label on the rightists.

For 39 years, teachers “have faced the privatization movement that would turn free, universally accessible public schools…into centers for profit,” Anderson said. She linked that right-wing cause to a “so-called ‘education reform’” drive creating “flawed, privately run unaccountable charter schools” to deliberately weaken teachers’ roles and to “ignore racial and social inequities.

“And then we saw the rise of authoritarianism in this country after the election of 2016.” And not just in schools, but in the wider society.

The rightists’ authoritarianism includes “concerted efforts to delegitimize the free press” and “set up an alternate social media world in which Americans are fed a constant diet of misinformation,” a polite way of saying rightists and white nationalists inflame people with lies.

“We’ve seen one of our major political parties be completely hijacked by a socio-political movement—the MAGA movement—that inspired over 2,000 people to illegally, criminally attack the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Facing judicial-imposed theocracy

“And now it appears we face a judicially imposed theocracy, given the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court in the last two weeks” revoking the constitutional right to abortion, sanctioning unlimited guns, and expanding the reach of religion in public schools.

Teachers, both said, must fight back against all those trends—and for freedom, for themselves to teach, or their students to learn and, as Anderson said, to “just be.”

  • “As we have for decades we will fight tirelessly for the right to choose. We will fight unceasingly for the rights of our LGBTQ+ students and educators.
  • ‘We will ‘say gay,’” despite a right-wing-enacted Florida law banning teaching about sexuality in primary grades and limiting it afterwards. “We will say trans. We will use the words that validate our students and their families; words that encourage them to walk in their authenticity, to love themselves fully to become who they are meant to be.
  • “And we will continue to take seriously our responsibility as educators to teach our students this nation’s true and complete history: The dynamics of our rich diversity, the triumphant moments, and those where we turned our backs on values” in the Constitution.

That’s a slam at the latest rightist social issue: Protesting, disrupting school board meetings, and passing laws in deep-red states banning the teaching of critical race theory. CRT is an academic theory of the impact of systemic racism on U.S. society. It’s discussed—not taught—only in higher education.

Right-wingers and white supremacists have launched a crusade of lies declaring CRT is taught in primary and secondary schools. Their ban on CRT has a racist subtext: Whitewashing the history and impact of 250 years of slavery, through 1865, the following century of Jim Crow, and continuing systemic racism.

While politics was a big topic, NEA delegates approved a comprehensive, if general policy statement setting out the union’s direction. Its points—some of which dovetail with the fight against the right, include:

  • “A restorative justice philosophy to create a school climate that rejects the criminalization and policing of students.
  • “Providing training and support for culturally competent instruction.
  • “Developing and implement plans to end disparities in disciplinary and behavioral practices” and
  • “Creating a community-centered school environment to foster safe, positive environments and engage all members of the public school.”

“Look up, NEA. You get to be the champions for our students,” Pringle concluded. “Look up, NEA. You get to defend our democracy. Look up, NEA. The sun is still shining. We will not be defeated. We will never give up. We will never give in. Every day, all day, we will stay centered in the work we have been called to do together. Every day, all day we will embrace our resistance as joy.”


CONTRIBUTOR

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 a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

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