AFT chose politics over academics at annual conference

If you thought the American Federation of Teachers would spend their national conference this year discussing ways to help teachers help their students recover lost ground academically after a year when many students learned by staring at a screen instead of sitting in a classroom, you would be wrong.

Instead, it was politics as usual. Or, rather, politics on steroids.

It is already becoming clear just how farbehind students are because of changes to the way they were taught in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Teachers struggled to engage students online, many students didn’t even show up, and there were clear social and emotional costs for students and teachers related to the stress of all the changes.

The social and emotional costs related to Covid were discussed at the AFT national conference, to the union’s credit. But the academic set-backs were barely mentioned.

Instead, the union fully leaned into the political turmoil surrounding the use of critical race theory and anti-racism in the classroom. Of the 64 breakout sessions, 13 were on racism and equity, while another 12 were on teaching civics in the union-approved way – meaning, students should be taught in school to be progressive activists, rather than engaged citizens.

Among the remaining sessions, another nine were on union organizing, there were seven on self-care, nine on social-emotional learning, and six related to academics. There were zero sessions on teaching math, even though American students badly lag behind students in other countries in math, a problem only made worse by Covid.

Teachers needed some relief after a rough year. By ramping up the political rhetoric, the unions have undoubtedly made things worse for teachers, not better.

Every time AFT President Randi Weingarten stepped in front of a microphone at the conference, she was political. From her multiple endorsements of President Joe Biden and his policy agenda, to her introduction of First Lady Jill Biden, to her presentation on civics education with former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams – who has yet to concede that she lost the race – Weingarten made the whole conference feel like a left-wing political rally.

It may be exactly what the teachers who signed up for the conference wanted. They are a self-selecting group, and perhaps Weingarten knows her audience well. But what about all the other teachers – both those who are conservative and those who would rather keep politics out of the classroom?

There are a lot of teachers just like that who pay Weingarten’s salary, and whose dues paid for the AFT Teach 2021 conference. Do their opinions matter?

The AFT conference has made many headlines – all of them related to the unbridled political nature of the conference and the controversial stances taken by union officials.

Weingarten has already stirred up controversy with her attempts to keep schools closed throughout the 2020-2021 school year, which she then strenuously denied, followed by charges that she helped re-write Center for Disease Control guidance on schools reopening.

The AFT Teach 2021 conference intensified the politicization of the teaching profession and of classroom instruction, which will not help teachers or their students.

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.

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