Weingarten: Schools are key in the fight to save democracy
Underfunding of public schools resulting in oversized classes is just one of many attacks on education that hurt democracy, according to AFT President Randi Weingarten. | alternet.org via Twitter

WASHINGTON—Schools are key to democracy, but are beset by staff shortages, culture wars, underfunding, and political efforts to divide parents from teachers and destroy public schools, Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten says.

In a major speech March 28 at the National Press Club, Weingarten declared “others are trying to drive a wedge in that connection” between teachers and parents and we, as a nation, “need to deepen it.

“Our public schools shouldn’t be pawns for politicians’ ambitions and divisions…Public schools are cornerstones, but some are attacking them with sledgehammers.

“It’s an extremist scheme by a very vocal minority. It’s limiting our effort to do what we need to do—educating 50 million children.”

The often outspoken New York City civics teacher didn’t hesitate to single out the foes of public schools, and therefore of the education that prepares kids to participate fully in democracy, by name.

They included Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., Trump ideologue Steve Bannon—who said on his podcast school boards “should be the next target”—the right-wing Otis and Bradley Foundations and former Trump Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, whom AFT and other teachers unions opposed for that post in 2017.

The foundations plus DeVos, who, though Weingarten didn’t say so, is part of the Amway fortune, “have poured millions in” to their drive to wreck public schools, the union leader said.

Omitted, except by inference: The House Republican right-wingers who oppose public schools, among other institutions, and who call the tune for the new, narrow GOP majority there. Weingarten pledged AFT would keep fighting their planned budget cuts.

The right-wingers’ larger agenda, she exclaimed, is to “destroy public education as we know it” and democracy with it, by crippling teachers’ ability to teach and students’ ability to collectively learn, especially about the U.S., its greatness and its flaws, its history and its multiculturalism and how to actively participate in a pluralistic nation.

Weingarten spoke against a dismaying backdrop, as she elaborated, of 400,000 teachers, beset by such stresses, leaving the profession annually, and of improvements in federal education funding—approved as anti-pandemic measures—under dual threat.

Physical, professional and emotional conditions are so bad for teachers, Weingarten said, that “parents say they love their kids’ teachers, but they don’t want their kids to grow up to be teachers.”

One threat is from the increasing numbers of states, all but a few Republican-run, who are diverting public taxpayer money, via vouchers, from public to private schools. Those 29 states and counting don’t include Florida, yet. Now they will.

There, DeSantis, who has made public schools and teachers a particular target, signed legislation the day before diverting $4 billion in state aid away from public schools to private schools via vouchers.

The other threat is the foes’ aim to destroy democracy by destroying trust in public schools, declared Weingarten. Their tactics include curriculum control, campaigning against teaching civil rights and “wokeness” and demonizing students of color and other students who are “different.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten | Andrew Harnik/AP

“It’s a hostile conservative agenda” against public schools, said AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, who preceded Weingarten to the podium.

“Our public schools shouldn’t be pawns for politicians’ divisions and ambitions….A great nation chooses freedom, and opportunity and equality and democracy, and we are a great nation. We deserve no less,” Weingarten said.

Public school foes also include Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, though Weingarten didn’t name him. Instead, she was preceded to the stage beforehand by parents and teachers from the Houston Independent School District, which Abbott just seized control of, effective July 1.

The three parents and teachers described the takeover, including a prior state seizure of one daughter’s elementary school. Student test scores declined and attention waned afterwards, the parent said.

While Weingarten spent most of her speech describing the problems and pressures schools and democracy face, she also offered solutions, and they weren’t just about money, though that helps.

They included making public schools wraparound centers where kids can not only learn but be in a safe and sheltered environment, complete with meals and social services. There’s another threat to that, too, said Weingarten: Gun violence.

At the start of her speech, Weingarten asked for a minute of silence in memory of the three students and three staffers a shooter killed in Nashville the day before. She then reiterated AFT’s demand for further gun controls, notably a complete ban on assault weapons. She’s been on an anti-gun crusade since the Florida school massacre on Valentine’s Day 2018, killing 14 kids and three teachers, AFT members.

Solutions also include innovative programs, many of them negotiated in union contracts, for things like paid parental leave community-wide—an initiative in Kansas City, Mo., that lets parents take time off to come to parent-teacher conferences. She cited other examples from districts urban and rural nationwide.

“It’s not New York, it’s not L.A.,” Weingarten noted of the Kansas City innovations.

And it also includes legal defense of students and teachers under assault from ideologues. So AFT has not only established a fund to pay for that, but it’s just established a toll-free hotline for pressured staffers, students and even parents to call: 1-888-873-7227.

“It’s a place to call if you’ve been told to remove a book, or you can’t teach honestly and appropriately” or “told to ‘out’ vulnerable kids” or are “being targeted to score political points,” she said.

The entire Weingarten speech, including remarks before it by the Houston parents and teachers and by a New York City teacher who was once one of Weingarten’s civics students, is on a video:

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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.