"We will continue to fight this defunding of our public schools and this dividing of our communities," said Weingarten. "But we also must do better to address the learning loss and disconnection we are seeing in our young people. And we can. We can make every public school a school where parents want to send their kids, educators want to work, and all students thrive."
The AFT president implored people to stand up for the future of public education, warning that its very existence is now threatened by a Republican-led effort to dismantle and privatize the schools attended by 90% of children in the United States.
"The Betsy DeVos wing of the school privatization movement is methodically working its plan," said Weingarten, referring to the Trump administration's pro-voucher education secretary. "Starve public schools of the funds they need to succeed. Criticize them for their shortcomings. Erode trust in public schools by stoking fear and division, including attempting to pit parents against teachers. Replace them with private, religious, online, and home schools."
"It's an extremist scheme by a very vocal minority of Americans," Weingarten noted. "And it's not what parents or the public want."
"We can make every public school a school where parents want to send their kids, educators want to work, and all students thrive."
According to Weingarten: "This year alone, 29 state legislatures are considering bills to either create or expand existing voucher programs. This is on top of the 72 voucher and tax credit programs in 33 states already subsidizing private and home schooling, costing billions every year. Voucher programs are proliferating even though research shows that, on average, vouchers negatively affect achievement—the declines are worse than pandemic learning loss. In fact, vouchers have caused 'some of the largest academic drops ever measured in the research record.'"
"And then there are the culture wars," said Weingarten. "What started as fights over pandemic-era safety measures has morphed into fearmongering: False claims that elementary and secondary schools are teaching critical race theory; disgusting, unfounded claims that teachers are grooming and indoctrinating students; and pronouncements that public schools push a 'woke' agenda, even though they can't or won't define what they mean. Banning books and bullying vulnerable children. School board meetings descending into screaming matches. This is an organized and dangerous effort to undermine public schools."
Last month, PEN America revealed that GOP officials across the United States introduced 84 educational gag orders during the first six weeks of 2023. This comes after Republican lawmakers put forth 190 bills designed to thwart classroom discussions of past and present injustices—including several proposals to establish so-called "tip lines" that would enable parents to punish school districts or individual teachers—in dozens of states in 2021 and 2022. Over the past two years, 19 laws aimed at silencing instruction about gender, sexuality, and racism were enacted in more than a dozen GOP-controlled states, plus eight measures imposed without legislation.
Moreover, the American Library Association reported last week that the far-right's campaign to ban books containing LGBTQ+ themes or stories about people of color has fueled an unprecedented rise in censorship attempts around the country, with 2,571 unique titles facing challenges in 2022, up 38% from the previous year.
"Their end goal," Weingarten said Tuesday during her speech, is "destroying public education as we know it, atomizing and balkanizing education in America, bullying the most vulnerable among us, and leaving the students with the greatest needs with the most meager resources."
To improve student outcomes and reclaim "the purpose and promise of public education," Weingarten shared the following four-part plan:
1. Opening 25,000 more community schools by 2025
As AFT explained in a statement, these schools "wrap academic counseling services, nutrition services, primary health and dental care, and much more around traditional schools to transform them into hubs that connect families and students with supports to learn and live."
2. Expanding experiential learning opportunities for all students, including career and technical education
According to Weingarten: "Experiential learning embeds the things that make kids want to be in school. The excitement of learning that is deeply engaging, and the joy of being together, especially after the isolation of the last few years. The camaraderie and responsibility of working together on a team. And in the age of AI and ChatGPT, this type of learning is critical to being able to think and write, solve problems, apply knowledge, and discern fact from fiction."
3. Reviving the teaching profession
With nearly 400,000 teachers "leaving the profession each year" and the teacher pipeline collapsing "as college students and career-changers choose not to go into education," Weingarten called for "treating educators as the professionals they are, with appropriate pay; time to plan and prepare for classes, to collaborate with colleagues, and to participate in meaningful professional development; and the power to make day-to-day classroom decisions."
4. Deepening partnerships with parents and community members
According to AFT, the union "has ramped up its Powerful Partnerships Institute, distributing 27 grants to locals totaling more than $1.5 million. For example, Montana is engaging thousands of public education-supporting families and educators across the state around a shared agenda. And New Haven is working with educators, families, and students on equitable school funding across Connecticut."
As part of AFT's Campaign for Our Shared Future, Weingarten announced the launch of a "Freedom to Teach and Learn" hotline for students, parents, teachers, and the public to document instances of censorship.
"Poll after poll has shown that parents and voters don't want politicized culture wars, they want schools and administrators to focus on what kids and communities need," AFT said. "The hotline—888-873-7227—will serve as a clearinghouse for reports of political interference. If Americans see something, they should say something."
In Weingarten's words, "It's a place to call if you've been told to remove a book from the curriculum or from the library, if you've been told that there are topics that can't be discussed in your classes or that you cannot teach honestly and appropriately, or if politicians in your district or state are targeting vulnerable student groups to score political points."
Alluding to AFT's four-point plan for greater investment and engagement, Weingarten said that "this is our agenda."
"But this can't just be the work of our union or of school staff and schools alone," she stressed. "This is the work of a great nation—to ensure that our children's basic human needs are met so they are ready to learn to their full potential."
"This can't just be the work of our union or of school staff and schools alone. This is the work of a great nation—to ensure that our children's basic human needs are met so they are ready to learn to their full potential."
"Our public schools shouldn't be pawns for politicians' ambitions. Or defunded and destroyed by ideologues," Weingarten continued. "We are at a crossroads: fear and division, or hope and opportunity."
"A great nation does not fear people being educated," she added. "A great nation does not fear pluralism. A great nation chooses freedom, democracy, equality, and opportunity. All of that starts in our public schools."
The labor leader opened with a moment of silence to honor the six people killed Monday in a shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville—just one of 130 mass shootings in the United States in 2023.
Lamenting the nation's "epidemic" of gun violence, Weingarten renewed AFT's demand for "commonsense gun safety legislation, including a ban on assault weapons"—a policy that helped reduce the number and severity of fatal mass shootings when it was in effect from 1994 to 2004.
Guns recently became the leading killer of children and teens in the United States. Research published last year found that approximately 26,000 kids could still be alive today if the U.S. had the same gun mortality rate as Canada.