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NEA News

Educators Rally for Freedom to Learn

A growing chorus of diverse voices demand politicians stop banning books and politicizing public education.
freedom to learn rally
Published: July 5, 2023

Key Takeaways

  1. Several thousands of educators attending the NEA Representative Assembly, in Orlando, rallied outside the Orange County Convention Center, calling for an end to attacks on students.
  2. Educators from across the country stood with their Florida colleagues to demand that all students—no matter their gender, race, or ZIP code—have access to a high-quality education that gives them the opportunity to succeed.
  3. “We must—and we will—win this battle,” said NEA President Becky Pringle.

Thousands of hot but resolute NEA members sent a message Wednesday, during the Freedom to Learn rally, to Florida’s Ron DeSantis and other politicians who are banning books, silencing educators, and taking away the freedom to learn from students. 

“You look magnificent!” said NEA President Becky Pringle, as she stood on the rally stage, looking across the crowd of thousands, from states around the nation, waving signs and rainbow flags. “You are showing what it means to fight against out-of-touch politicians like Ron DeSantis.” 

In just the past year, politicians like DeSantis have recklessly banned books about Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank, attempted to erase and dehumanize the LGBTQ+ community, blocked students from learning AP African American Studies and restricted the freedom of educators to teach and of students to learn. Meanwhile, they fail to address the real problems that students face, including gun violence and a shortage of educators. 

“We will show this governor, and other dictators, that they can’t take us back to the 1950s!” promised Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar, to the roaring crowd. “We will move forward!” 

Educators and Allies Make Their Demands 

Three women seated in wheelchairs and holding signs attend the Freedom to Learn Rally in Orlando, Florida

The rally took place during NEA's Representative Assembly and Annual Meeting, this year in Orlando, Fla. Additional rally speakers came from local and national racial and social justice organizations, such as NAACP Florida. Their demands included:  

A life free of hate, harassment, and harm for the LGBTQ+ community—specifically, our transgender girls and boys; women and men.
Liberty for students here in Florida, and across the nation. They deserve the freedom to learn. Educators deserve the freedom to teach the truth.
The happiness that every human experiences when they stand in their authenticity, able to live as the whole human we all are.

“NEA! With your passion and your power, I know that we will mobilize and organize like never before—for the babies of today, and tomorrow, we must—and we will—win this battle!” Pringle said.  

“We will not allow Ron DeSantis—or any other politician—to destroy our public schools for their own political gain. We will continue to remind him—and everyone who stands against us—that our students do not need protection from drag queens," she said. "What they need is protection from gun violence. Every student deserves the freedom to read books that teach them the history, beauty, and diversity of their world.”  

Sharing the stage with Pringle were FEA’s Spar; Alex Ames and Austin Dixon of the Georgia Youth Justice League Coalition; Gabriela Pacheco, director of TheDream.US; Florida kindergarten teacher Cory Bernaert; Illinois educator and LGBTQ+ activist Bill Farmer; NAACP Florida President Adora Obi Nweze; and Mecca “MeccaMorphosis” Verdell, an internationally winning spoken word poet. 

Standing Up for Florida Educators 

Many of the educators at the rally Wednesday live and work in places where they don’t yet feel attacked by politicians, they said. Kevin Deely, a Pennsylvania high school English teacher, feels supported in teaching diverse books, he said. Indeed, at the urging of his local union in Easton, Penn., school board members passed an anti-racist resolution this year. (Check out NEA resources on passing similar resolutions.

He came to Wednesday’s rally to support other educators who can’t safely use their own voices, he said. “I have the privilege of being able to speak when others can’t or might be persecuted for speaking. I’m going to use that privilege—for my colleagues, for students, for everyone,” he said.   

Similarly, Kristy Gnibus, a family and consumer sciences teacher from Erie, Penn., joined the rally Wednesday because she “believes in the freedom to learn,” she said. “Truth is important! And having diverse literature for students is fundamentally what education is about.” 

In Michigan, the governor and both branches of the state legislature are Democratic—and good things are happening for educators and students, said Michigan teachers Greta Brock and Lisa Rhea, who came to the rally to be supportive. “We have a very education-friendly governor, but we’ve seen the other side,” said Brock.  

“We don’t want to turn into Florida!” she said. 

We asked, you shared!

Zoom in to see the photos rally-goers shared with us.

Feeling Supported—and Fired Up 

For the Florida teachers in the crowd, it was a powerful, validating experience. “I feel this is a space where I’m supported, and where I can get the knowledge and tools to move forward,” said Jorje Botello, a civics teacher in Okeechobee, Fla., who also taught U.S. history for 20-plus years. 

It’s hard to teach history and civics in Florida today, he said. Teachers are fearful for their jobs. “One hundred percent, we feel limitations on what we can do and teach,” he said. 

Johnny Green, an education support professional from Tampa, who serves as vice president of the Hillsborough County Teachers Association, said problems are compounding in Florida. Low pay is one issue. Lack of respect makes it worse. On top of that, politicians are making educators fear they might be fired or arrested for doing their jobs. “We’re losing people every day. They’re stressed out,” Green said. “They used to want to be teachers, but now it’s not a road anyone wants to take.” 

Green also appreciated Wednesday’s rally, he said, and all the additional support provided by NEA to Florida members through trainings, resources, and more. “We appreciate President Pringle and her commitment to us!” 

From the stage, Pringle told the crowd: “FEA, you are not alone.” 

“As this nation’s largest most powerful union, … we will protect our democracy [and] preserve public education. And…we will win, because…we must. We will win because we know our students are depending on us to be worthy of them,” concluded Pringle. 

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National Education Association

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.