Happy Fourth of July, NEA! Thank you delegates for being here! And thank you to our international guests for joining us. To our dear friends Susan Hopgood and David Edwards – President and General Secretary of Education International, thank you for your leadership and advocacy for educators, students and quality education around the world.
To our three million members, our Board of Directors, the NEA Executive Committee, our affiliate leaders, and to the incredible staff of the NEA, I say thank you for the expertise, the dedication, and passion you devote every single day to fulfilling the mission of our beloved union.
This is indeed a special, but bittersweet day. Today marks the last Representative Assembly for one of the most exceptional human beings to work for the NEA. And he will appreciate me leading with the numbers. He has worked here for 11,904 days or 425 months or 35 years.
He has supported 6 NEA Presidents, 6 Secretary Treasurers, 4 Executive Directors
He has supported 35 RA’s, 147 Board meetings, 148 Budget Committee meetings
Delegates, Michael McPherson, NEA’s Chief Financial Officer, is retiring.
Mike is known as much for his big heart as he is his fiscal integrity and acumen. He is welcoming, kind, generous with his time and mentorship. Delegates, I cannot begin to tell you how hard this man has worked for you, for the students you serve, and for the cause of public education.
Mike, the numbers tell a story, but the depth of what you mean to all of us is incalculable.
Delegates, I hope you will get on your feet and give a well-deserved round of applause for one of the most distinguished staff members to serve this organization – Mike McPherson!
Thank you Mike!
And of course, there is another person to thank for her visionary, purposeful, passionate leadership, and that is our President, Becky Pringle. She is simply a force of nature.
Madam President, it is an honor to work by your side.
Delegates—when we gathered in Chicago last summer, one of the deadliest school shootings had just happened, in Uvalde, Texas.
The Don’t Say Gay bill was just signed into law, right here in this state.
The Supreme Court had just overturned Roe v. Wade and burned down the wall of separation between church and state in the school voucher case.
I was angry, we all were. And we knew that was just the start.
As you heard yesterday from Becky and FEA President Andrew Spar and from our brilliant General Counsel, Alice O’Brien, the fight for freedom and equal opportunity and basic human dignity has intensified.
The Court and politicians who support them have taken yet another sledgehammer to some very fundamental principles that we all thought were long settled– that diversity is a strength. And that individual liberty shouldn’t sanction discrimination.
On this July 4th, I again find myself returning to John Stuart Mill. Liberty “is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
Our society cannot be truly free without both liberty AND liberation. Liberation from hatred. Liberation from societal systems that continue to perpetuate inequities. Liberation from a rising tide of both anger and isolation that is contributing to a significant mental health crisis in this country and frustrating our quest to make America a more perfect union.
So, I’ve been reflecting about the role of anger in social change. Anger isn’t the “why” to our fight. Love is the reason we fight.
Love is actually what fuels our anger. Not the other way around.
Love is what gets you out of bed every morning to show up for your students – no matter what.
And love is why we chose this work in the first place – a love of children and students and a deep love for the value of public education….to our students, to our communities, and to our society.
Now, I’m not talking about some soft, passive sentiment. The love I’m talking about is:
A love that listens as much as it speaks.
A love that understands that rights come with responsibilities.
And a love that solves problems for as many people in as many places as humanly possible.
I learned from educators that love starts with listening.
When we listen to our students, we don’t just learn about what excites them or worries them, engages them or frustrates them. We also learn what they need from us.
- Our students need acceptance.
A student here in Florida who has sued to challenge one of Gov. DeSantis’s laws said: “It’s shocking and horrifying to see how quickly the Don’t Say Gay Law has been able to change school culture.”
- Our students need safety. Gun violence prevention activist Emma Gonzalez, former student at Stoneman Douglas High School said, “If all our government can do is send thoughts and prayers, it’s time for us to be the change we need to see.”
- Our students need opportunity. A Florida college student who was part of the effort to save tuition for DACA students here recently said: “I came from Venezuela at a very young age. And education has been the cornerstone of [what] the United States has given me.”
- Our students need justice. If anyone in America wants to get a pulse on what our students are crying out for, I implore you to visit JustImagineJustice.org. Delegates, Just Imagine Justice is a student expression campaign organized by Kansas NEA to lift up the powerful voices of our students. Kansas-NEA recently announced their second class of scholarship winners of the campaign. Their vision is so powerful. So expansive. So beautiful. Thank you KNEA for giving our students a platform to be heard and to remind us of what our country can be.
NEA members, you are among the first people hear our students. You lend them a loving and listening ear every day. You counsel them when they are afraid. You support them when they are hurting. You cheer them on so they can achieve their dreams.
Thankfully, we aren’t the only ones who are listening.
Polling shows that the majority of Americans agree that our students deserve acceptance, safety, opportunity, and justice. They agree that students need fully and equitably funded schools. They agree that students need a curriculum and a teaching and learning approach that is learner-centered and prepares them for a rapidly changing economy and world.
These should be basic rights for every student in America. But what we know…..and what our students know…..is that the advancement of our basic rights is a responsibility. Securing these rights isn’t automatic. It takes action.
Oregon where are you? Our members in Oregon did that across the state in their school board elections this year. OEA members stood together with parents, students and community members and won 84% of their school board races, defeating anti-public education, far right candidates whose ideas were harmful to public education. We have seen these trends in lots of other states, too.
Elected leaders need to listen to our students and their educators.
Elected leaders here in Florida need to listen to our students and their educators.
Leaders who ban books rather than bullets need to listen to our students and their educators!
Leaders who sow division rather than champion diversity need to listen to our students and their educators!
Leaders who would rather spread lies than solve problems need to listen to our students, educators and communities!
To all elected leaders and media pundits at every level:
You cannot claim to love America’s students if you refuse to listen to them and take action.
That’s not what love for our students looks like.
And our students know that….we know that….and the majority of Americans know that!
I am proud that, throughout our history, educators have taken this responsibility seriously.
Delegates, you are part of an organization with a history of stepping into that responsibility with a fierce love and understanding of our calling as educators and as a union.
- Educators fought to integrate schools.
- Educators fought for voting rights for all Americans.
- Educators helped ensure that science, including evolution, was a core part of public school curriculums.
- Educators helped pass Title I and IDEA.
- Educators fought for Pell Grants and Perkins loans
- Educators fought for marriage equality
And so much more
Today, we have a responsibility to continue this tradition—this time by harnessing our anger and acting out of love for our students and the nation they will one day lead.
After all, freedom is not our inheritance. The fight for freedom is.
But love, just like the fight for freedom, isn’t easy. It requires action. And it requires solutions.
On this front, NEA is in motion. In addition to all the victories Becky mentioned yesterday, I also want to lift up that in the last year alone:
- Education funding has reached record levels in states like Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Idaho.
- Lawmakers in states like Washington, Colorado, and Maryland have passed common-sense gun safety legislation.
- And in South Carolina, lawmakers have passed six weeks of paid parental leave for school employees.
- North Dakota and Georgia beat back vouchers
- And in lots and lots of states, we’ve seen educators receiving salary increases in almost all job categories. Now we have to get Gov Abbott to give our Texas retirees a cost of living adjustment they haven’t had in 20 years!
- And Becky, you talked about Michigan winning all the things……well, I think their neighbor Illinois is also winning all the things…….
IEA worked to join Hawaii to become the second state in the country to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution. IL became the first state in the nation to put a ban on banning books. IEA rolled back vouchers, and they won 90% of their school board races!!
Our members are coming together with parents, students, communities, local businesses, and faith leaders to find common ground and demand it from our lawmakers.
Luckily, there are lawmakers out there who spend more time demonstrating grit than contributing to gridlock…who are more committed to doing than dividing. And there are folks like Gov Katie Hobbs in Arizona and Andy Beshear in Kentucky who stand up against bad policies that harm our students, educators, and communities.
And let’s not forget two other lawmakers we have on our side, NEA. Yes, I’m talking about President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris!
The Biden-Harris Administration is the most productive, most pro-public education, and most pro-union Administration in our nation’s history.
Now, maybe this isn’t surprising, given that the President and Vice President are both proud products of public schools and the First Lady is an NEA member….
It’s also not surprising because President and Dr. Biden demonstrate every day that loving America means loving and doing right by all Americans – protecting all Americans’ liberties, health, safety, and economic opportunity.
Before the first 100 days were up, the Biden-Harris Administration facilitated the single largest investment in public education in our nation's history through the American Rescue Plan.
And, NEA, let me tell you: we went to work. NEA created a Rescue Plan network of experts in our affiliates across the states to make sure that money was spent on what educators and students truly needed in their communities:
- We put clothes on the backs of our students in Georgia, and food in the bellies of our students in Idaho.
- We expanded early learning for our little ones in New Mexico and New York.
- And our public employees in Montana and across the country used the American Rescue Plan to keep our cities and our states running as smoothly as possible. Let’s hear it for them!
The American Rescue Plan has resulted in a 36% more school social workers, 28% more school nurses, and 11% more school counselors than we had pre-pandemic.
It has helped us get lead out of school pipes and provided $10 billion worth of upgrades to school ventilation systems across the country.
And you know all those educator raises in states that Becky mentioned yesterday? They were made possible by the American Rescue Plan.
Delegates, I want you to see some folks. Will the NEA Board of Directors, the State Affiliate Presidents, and the NEA Executive Committee please stand? These folks along with our government relations staff are the most active advocates on Capitol Hill for our 3 million members. They took your stories and the stories of our students to Washington, DC, and helped deliver the largest increase in federal education funding in the history of the United States!
Not long after the A-R-P came the B-I-L. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Biden-Harris Administration also facilitated historic investments in cleaner school buses and safer school routes.
I’ve gotta give a special shoutout to Vice President Harris for her leadership on building big yellow electric school buses, so fewer kids will be coughing from bus fumes. Instead, our kids will breathe easier on their way to and from school while we help reduce carbon emissions.
But wait! There’s more -- the Inflation Reduction Act—a law that makes the Biden-Harris Administration’s core beliefs clear…that no matter one’s race or place:
- We deserve to fill our lungs with fresh, clean air.
- We deserve fresh, clean water. Shout out to the Mississippi Association of Educators who organized and stood up with community activists in Jackson to raise the national consciousness about the water crisis in that city. Imagine having to boil water for almost a year just to cook and drink and bathe. Well MAE and NEA’s efforts secured over $600 million to solve the water crisis for thousands of families, students, and yes, MAE members.
- We deserve to be able to afford the prescription drugs we need. Capping insulin at $35/month is literally life-changing and life-saving for countless Americans.
- We deserve a society in which corporations and the super-wealthy don’t cheat Americans by avoiding taxes and paying more of their fair share.
- And the Inflation Reduction Act stands for the proposition that our children deserve to inherit a healthy planet.
If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
NEA, you helped make all that happen. Elections and our advocacy matter! Under the Biden-Harris Administration:
- More people are working than at any point in American history
- More people have health insurance than any point in American history
- There’s more money in your pockets – from Public Service Loan Forgiveness to the child care tax credit to housing assistance to lowering energy costs and healthcare costs.
- The most diverse set of judicial nominees in history
- A huge investment in modernizing America’s roads, bridges, and core infrastructure.
- And they guided us out of a worldwide pandemic
And now in 2023 and 2024, we are doubling down on our political efforts. NEA, we are going to hold onto the Senate, take back the House, and re-elect President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris!
NEA, you show me every day that the answer to divisiveness is togetherness—and that love is what unites us. And so do our public schools. Love is what brings us closer and makes us stronger…and so do our public schools.
Listening to the needs of others and finding our common values and shared interests.
That is the work of organizing….and it begins with love.
When we love through difference, that’s the work of democracy.
When we choose love over hate, that’s the work of liberation.
When we attack broken systems instead of people, that’s the work of liberation.
When we embrace every American for who they are, that’s the work of justice.
The late and great Rep. John Lewis said, “When we were sitting in, it was love in action. When we went on the freedom ride, it was love in action. The march from Selma to Montgomery was love in action. We do it not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s love in action.”
Delegates, love isn’t left or right, love moves us forward.
Let’s transform our righteous anger into fierce love in action!
Love in action for our students!
Love in action for our professions!
Love in action for our communities!
Love in action for democracy!
Love in action for justice!
Love in action for freedom!
Let’s go NEA, let’s go!
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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 and students preparing to become teachers.
- Richard Allen Smith
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