Hello, delegates! Happy Independence Day!
Being together in person for the first time in three years is just pure joy and it fills me with gratitude.
Gratitude for our 3 million members; gratitude for you, our over 6,000 delegates at this year’s Representative Assembly; for our incredible officers, Executive Committee, and Board of Directors. Delegates, you have no idea how hard these leaders work every day—not just here at the RA, but all year-round.
And I am incredibly proud and grateful for all of our talented, dedicated, brilliant staff. Delegates, your union has the best staff in the labor movement! We ALL consider ourselves part of this proud, righteous, beautiful family.
And, of course, gratitude for our magnificent President, Becky Pringle. I’ve never met another leader who stands so forcefully in purpose and passion to change the world for our students. Smart, powerful, thoughtful, inspiring—your leadership is so important.
Madam President, thank you for leading with your whole self. Thank you for calling on us to heal, to teach, and to lead with everything we have within us and within our beloved union.
Delegates, on this Fourth of July, I once again find myself reflecting upon the inextricable link between public education and our democracy and freedom.
American self-governance has always been premised in part on the principle that John Stuart Mill captured so well in his famous essay “On Liberty.”
Mill articulated the precious balance on which so many other principles rest—that any human being should be able to do as they desire, so long as the exercise of that liberty doesn’t infringe upon the liberty of another.
The other day, I actually reread the full Declaration of Independence—all of it.
From its beautiful, but incomplete assertion that all men are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights, such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” to its acknowledgement that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to those ends, it is the people who have the right to alter their government.
Now, I revere the humble brilliance of that acknowledgement: that the people have as much right to establish their government as they have to change it through a peaceful process we call democracy.
But at the same time, it makes me no less patriotic to acknowledge that the drafters of that declaration and our glorious Constitution didn’t have all of us in mind when they used the word “all.” But over time, we have continued to learn. As we learn, we progress.
That learning is made possible by the combination of public education together with the First Amendment that buoys a free and independent press.
It is the institution of public education that equips us with the knowledge to engage in civil discourse, to debate the issues of our time, and to understand the lessons of our past.
Our children, our students—they know that the American experiment is supposed to embody a learning journey like the ones you foster every day in America’s classrooms and on our campuses.
President Pringle spoke eloquently yesterday about the students and educators she met all across the country and their indefatigable hopes and dreams of the promise of a fully supported, equitable, excellent public education.
Whenever Becky would come back from visiting you, she was over the moon with energy and joy and admiration for your resilience and brilliance.
As a parent, I have no earthly idea how you do it. I have no idea how the boundless love just keeps spilling out of you to calm, reassure, inspire, and excite the nation’s students.
Many of you have told me that your fuel comes from the dreams and potential you see in your students.
You can see the aspirations they have for their own lives and the freedom they’re demanding in the society they will lead one day.
They’re fighting for freedom.
The freedom to love who you love—proudly.
The freedom to read what books you want to read.
The freedom to choose when to start a family—or whether to start a family at all.
The freedom to be safe in every school—and every neighborhood.
The freedom to worship—or not.
The freedom to be heard in the workplace—and at the ballot box.
The freedom to be healthy.
The freedom to be happy.
The freedom to simply be.
The demands of our students represent the progress we must continue to make—the progress to make us—the United States—a more perfect union.
That’s why they are organizing, marching, posting, and yelling. And so are we.
They see what’s happening. And so do we.
Delegates, I would submit to you that we have never faced this complex a set of ideological factions and movements in our union’s history.
Since 1983, we have faced the privatization movement that would turn free, universally accessible public schools—those that Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and other founders thought essential—into centers for profit.
We have faced the so-called education reform movement, in which we’ve seen the flawed theory that if you simply create enough privately run, unaccountable charter schools, weaken the voice of educators, and ignore racial and social inequities in education finance and policy, somehow the entire system will be jolted into some magical, fictitious education utopia.
And then we saw the rise of authoritarianism in this country after the election of 2016. We’ve seen concerted efforts to delegitimize the free press, set up an alternate social media world in which Americans are fed a constant diet of misinformation. And the social media platforms that profit from it are not held accountable. We’ve seen one of our major political parties in the Unites States 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.
And now it appears we face a judicially imposed theocracy, given the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court in the last two weeks.
President Pringle cited several of these cases yesterday.
NEA, our highest court in the land, just took a sledgehammer to the principle of separation of church and state in both the voucher and school prayer cases.
The court made everyone who is able to give birth feel like a second-class citizen. Margaret Atwood’s book, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is art imitating life.
And worse yet, because the court eviscerated the right to privacy, it has set the stage for challenging the right to obtain contraception, the right to be intimate with whom we love, the right to marry someone of a different race, the right to marry someone of the same sex.
And in an existentially dangerous and blind rejection of science, the court just neutered the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, making it harder for the very experts we count on to keep our air and water safe.
I hope that none of us will be shy about sharing the following indictment:
This Supreme Court and significant numbers of radicalized elected officials have walked away from freedom and justice for all toward an extreme, controlling, discriminatory, exclusionary, misogynistic, homophobic, out of touch, racist, cruel, and corrupt ideology.
But delegates, as President Pringle reminded us yesterday: We are NEA!
Whether it’s Frederick Douglass or Paolo Freire or Audre Lorde we hear in our ears, we know this: Despair is a tool used to oppress.
To suppress the rights of the people.
To stifle dissent in the face of injustice.
To sow division among the masses—and undermine our collective ability to rise up together.
Those who attempt to take away our freedom do so in order to accumulate more wealth or more power—or both—for themselves. They want us to feel defeated. They want us to feel hopeless.
This tired, age-old formula has manifested itself in senseless, discriminatory laws that make it easier to buy a gun than cast a vote.
Or laws that censor educators for teaching the truth and honoring the authentic identities of all our students.
Delegates, the importance of public education and, more importantly, the nation’s educators, has never been more evident or urgent.
Throughout history—especially in times of deep division—public schools bring together people from all walks of life.
In times of great uncertainty, public schools provide stability and comfort to students in every ZIP code.
As our mental and physical health is at risk, public schools are providing critical services to entire communities.
And as the world economy changes rapidly, our higher education institutions provide the skills not only to help students find their passions, but also to help lifelong learners become equipped for their next professional chapters.
In this time filled with darkness, public education brings light.
In this time filled with despair, public education brings hope.
If there’s one thing that brings parents and communities together right now, it’s public education—and we’ve seen this firsthand.
Educators—together with students and parents—are once again taking the lead.
In Wisconsin, WEAC and the Wisconsin Public Education Network asked voters to approve bond referendum funding for public education across the state with a simple but fundamental idea: Public schools unite us. And they won big time!
In New York, NYSUT supported bipartisan slates of pro-public education school board candidates who ran on that same idea. And NYSUT beat extremist, anti-public education school board candidates all across the state. Eighty-six percent of the candidates NYSUT endorsed—including lots of our own members—won!
In Indiana, ISTA helped build a broad-based coalition of over 200 organizations demanding that our students deserve to learn the truth! ISTA’s fight shows us that no matter whether you live in a red state, a purple state, or a blue state, Americans across race, space, income, and background can come together to open the doors of learning wider for all students.
In Delaware and California, members of the Delaware State Education Association and the California Teachers Association led the way to pass groundbreaking gun violence prevention laws that their governors signed just this week.
Affiliates across this country have stood up and won some of the largest increases in professional compensation, rights, and support that we’ve achieved in decades.
We beat back vouchers in Iowa, Oklahoma, and South Carolina!
Educators and community members stood together on the strike lines—from Minneapolis to Oakland—fighting for more mental health supports for students, for better pay for all educators, for racial justice, and against harmful school closures.
And delegates, last year I told you about the restoration of the right to collectively bargain in my own home state, the Commonwealth of Virginia. Well President Fedderman, you didn’t let any grass grow. The Virginia Education Association is working with locals across the state—like the Richmond Education Association—to achieve recognition and win the right to bargain for the support our students AND educators deserve!!
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas.
The Kansas National Education Association launched a student expression campaign, called Just Imagine Justice.
KNEA asked students this question: What does justice look like? They asked students to speak their truth about social justice through visual art, through spoken word, through music.
And the response was incredible, powerful.
Students poured their hearts out onto the page, imagining a better world for us all.
One student designed art to bring awareness to the hate that Asian American communities have faced in the wake of the pandemic.
Another student painted an unhoused veteran, smiling at a little girl. A reminder—in the student’s words—that “hope can be found in the smallest of instances.”
The words in another student’s piece speak for themselves: “I see my face in yours.”
Educators, I know you see your face in theirs, too.
Every day, students walk into classrooms with every manner of hope and hardship.
And no matter who they are or where they come from, you teach them.
You fight for their freedom to learn—and your freedom to teach.
You fight for all of us. You are joining our students as freedom fighters.
So, tell me, delegates:
What do freedom fighters do?
You read books; you don’t ban them!
You teach the truth about our history; you don’t deny it!
You protect our children’s safety, not the gunmakers’ profits!
You see our children as they are; you don’t deny their identities!
Freedom fighters, it’s our turn.
It’s our turn to stand up with our students!
Stand up for public education!
Stand up for democracy!
Stand up for freedom!
Let’s go NEA. It’s our turn!
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The National Education Association is the nation's largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators, students preparing to become teachers, healthcare workers, and public employees. Learn more at www.nea.org.