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Communities Can Reclaim the Promise of Public Education

(This speech was delievered by Brad Asay on Aug. 10, 2013 at the Davis County Democratic Breakfast in Kaysville, Utah. The speech was adapted from a New York Times' column written by Randi Weingarten, AFT National President)

     The idea that teachers have the summer off is something of a myth. I spent a few days at the end of July with several thousand teachers, not at a posh resort, but at TEACH, the AFT’s largest gathering of educators focused on their professional practice and growth. We spent long days learning from fellow educators and other experts about concrete ways to improve teaching and learning. Many teachers will spend the remainder of their summer: writing curriculum aligned to the new, challenging Common Core State Standards; taking classes, because teachers are lifelong learners; and working with student in enrichment camps and in programs to stem summer learning loss. So much for the dog days of August.

    But we conferees did much more. We also committed to reclaim the promise—the promise of public education. Not as it is today or as it was in the past, but as what
public education can be to fulfill our collective obligation to help all children succeed.

    As I’ve met and talked with dedicated and hopeful educators throughout this summer there’s still a great amount of frustration. The promise of a great public education for all children is under pressure not only from out-of-touch legislators, but from economic and societal factors outside school that make it much more difficult to achieve success within the classroom. In districts throughout the United States, nearly 1 out of every 2 students in public schools lives in poverty, and educators have become the first responders to their stress, hunger and hardships. Don’t think for one minute that Utah is immune to such problems. But these factors don’t keep us from teaching, they keep us up at night.

     AFT National President Randi Weingarten stated, “Public education is also under assault by people whose brand of “reform” consists of austerity, polarization, privatization and deprofessionalization—and who then argue that public education is failing. Maybe they never learned the difference between cause and effect.”

     She continues, “And a frequent sentiment I hear from teachers is that the people passing the laws, calling the shots and defunding our schools are totally out of touch with what their students need and what it’s like in their classroom.”

     “But people are beginning to see that the emperors of reform have no clothes. Years of top-down edicts, mass school closures and test fixation with sanctions instead of support haven’t moved the needle—not in the right direction, at least.”

     The AFT recently conducted a poll of a broad array of public school parents. Parents want approaches that are vastly different from prevailing policies they believe hurt schools and students. They overwhelmingly choose strong neighborhood public schools over expanding choice, charters, and vouchers. This is also the case in Utah as we voted down vouchers and many Davis County parents and citizens are willing to support their neighborhood schools by volunteering. We have vibrant PTSA organizations. We have reading programs that allow adults to come into the classrooms and read with children. We have workshops that teach parents how to be more involved in their children’s education. Does this sound like the portrayal of our public schools that Senator Osmond, Gayle Ruzika, and the Sutherland Institute are painting as they push their agenda of privatizing Utah’s Educational System? We see through their masquerade that they so suggestively cloak in the guise of “parental choice”!

     We must reclaim the promise of public education to fulfill our collective obligation to help all children succeed. AFT practices Solution Driven Unionism. This approach advances solutions that unite the people we represent and those we serve—our students, our families and our communities. We strive to bring people together around agendas that serve all kids, all workers and all communities—to restore the middle class, strengthen our public schools, and invest in, not destabilize, communities.

How do can we as communities Reclaim the Promise of Public Education?
   • Serve on your local school’s community council.
   • Serve in your local PTSA.
   • Volunteer in a classroom if possible once a month or more for a couple of hours.
   • Send a thank you note to your children’s teachers.
   • Attend school board meetings. Get put on the agenda and bring up issues that need to be addressed that affect your neighborhood schools.
   • Run for a position on your local school board.
   • Write pro public school op ed pieces in newspapers.
   • Create and host a neighborhood school website/blog.
   • Encourage your employer to sponsor a book drive/service project for a struggling school and you take the lead in organizing the activity.
   • Encourage your employer to sponsor mentorships or apprenticeships with your local schools.

     The list can go on as we come up with creative ways to serve. The idea is to become actively involved in supporting our local schools. AFT Local Leadership can help with your efforts.

     The vision of Reclaiming the Promise may look different in different communities, but it has common elements. Reclaiming the promise of public education will bring back the joy of teaching and learning, which has been drained by years of harmful policies. It’s the way to make every public school a place where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach, and children are engaged. We are looking forward to parents and community partners joining with teachers—as we return from our summer “break”—to achieve this promise.