NEA President Becky Pringle kicked off the 2023 NEA Representative Assembly (RA) in Orlando, Florida, on Monday, with a rousing speech that exhorted RA delegates to meet today’s attacks on the freedom to teach, on LGBTQ+ students, and on public education, in general, with the strength of their collective action.
Florida is “our ground zero for shameful, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric and dangerous actions.” And that’s exactly why NEA leaders are meeting here, Pringle said.
“We have come here because our children are here. We have come here because our colleagues are here. We have come here because educators, students, and their communities are being attacked by laws that threaten their safety, question their humanity, and block their access to every basic right that defines the word freedom!” Pringle said. “Right here in Florida, we will preserve and strengthen a democracy that was steeped in the power of ‘We the People.’”
The challenges are clear, but so is the strength of the nation’s largest labor union. “With 3 million members in households across this nation, it is our duty to lead in the magnificent and complex constellation that is public education,” Pringle said.
Since the RA last met entirely in person, in 2019, NEA members have seen increasing attacks on their freedom to teach. And that’s not all. A women’s right to control her own body has been curtailed. Voting rights have been rolled back. And, especially in Florida and a handful of other states, members of the LGBTQ+ community—especially those who are transgender—have faced unrelenting hate.
“This is the moment, with the residue of the pandemic lingering, with our psyches still fragile, that we must try to make sense of all that we have lost—and all that we have learned,” Pringle said. “I will always remember the tearful yet defiant Florida educator who expressed the concerns of far too many, telling me, ‘I can’t teach like this. I refuse to.’”
Making matters worse, in just the last week, the Supreme Court “slammed shut the doors of access and opportunity for millions of Americans by outlawing affirmative action,” and by rejecting the Biden administration’s student loan cancellation program. That very same day, pointed out Pringle, the court also struck a blow against the LGBTQ+ community with a ruling that “licenses discrimination under the First Amendment.”
But Pringle shared the words of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who wrote in a blistering dissent in the affirmative action case: “Every moment these gaps persist is a moment [where] this great country falls short of actualizing one of its foundational principles—the ‘self-evident’ truth that all of us are created equal.”
Jackson concluded: “I dissent.”
And so does NEA, said Pringle. “NEA … We all dissent!”
‘You are the leading the work!’
Despite these challenges, NEA members have been making a difference—in classrooms and in statehouses across the nation. In her speech, Pringle shared a long list of victories achieved by NEA members, who organized to advocate for their students and their profession.
In Minnesota, for example, educators helped elect pro-public education politicians to the State House, state Senate, and governor’s office, and then demanded those lawmakers make unprecedented investments in public education. In Colorado and New Mexico, educators helped strengthen their gun laws, making schools safer.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts educators won a “tax fairness victory,” said Pringle, that will raise billions for public schools. And in Mississippi, when educators raised their voices, lawmakers answered with a $100 million increase in school funding.
In California, they won community schools funding. In Vermont, universal meals for all students. And that’s not all, Pringle said.
“In places across the country … you are courageously embracing your responsibility as education professionals standing up for education, democracy, and freedom. With pride and persistence, you embrace the magnitude of what you’ve been called to do,” Pringle said. “Deliberate and unafraid, you continue to demand that every student is seen and supported; that every educator is respected as the professional they are.
“Unbowed and unbroken, and with a resolve that is unwavering, NEA, you are leading the work to promote, to protect, and to strengthen public education!”
‘I see you, NEA!’
The shared vision of NEA members—to unite our entire nation to reclaim public education as a common good and to transform it into a racially and socially just and equitable system that prepares every student to succeed in our diverse and interdependent world—drives us forward to take action, Pringle said.
In closing, Pringle reminded RA delegates of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”
In Florida, and in so many places, these are dark times. “Dr. King’s words describe the reality of our world,” Pringle said. And yet, “through the darkness, I see you, NEA.”
“NEA, you are those stars in the darkness. Your light will never be dimmed. Your purpose will drive you in our righteous fight for freedom. Because you know who you are. You are the NEA! Our mission is clear: We will advocate for the rights of education professionals and change the world for our students. With that inner fire burning, we will never bend, we will not be broken!”