During a keynote address at the National Education Association’s (NEA) annual “Share My Lesson” virtual conference, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten singled out political priorities as a centerpiece of the teachers union’s strategy going forward.
The annual “Share My Lesson” virtual conference is supposed to be a forum to discuss classroom instruction strategies, curriculum ideas, or lesson plans. Instead, Weingarten used the time to highlight partisan, political rhetoric.
She began her address by painting a picture about teachers unions like AFT, as being “on the side of hope, of aspiration, of humanity,” in contrast to partisan politicians. “Teachers are stewards of society,” Weingarten said, “Teachers are nation builders.” Weingarten said too many politicians are trying to “drive a wedge between parents and teachers because you think it works as a politician to get you votes.”
Weingarten, who has a track record of being an outspoken critic of politicians on the political Right, then focused much of her ire on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. She claimed that DeSantis is “leading this charge [against teachers]. They’re threatening teachers with felonies and jail time if they give their students the wrong book to read.”
The teachers union president continued, “They’re threatening to wipe out all academic freedom in Florida’s public higher ed system. And then on top of that, they’re saying that unions should be completely denuded, and we shouldn’t have the ability or the funding from our members to operate.” Weingarten added, “Just as they’re trying to defund public schools, we are trying to actually fight to have the emotional and social and safety support systems in schools like creating community schools in lots of different places.”
Weingarten blamed DeSantis for the recent push in several states for a universal voucher program. She said, “Take the universal voucher plan, heading for Gov. DeSantis’s desk, $4 billion of funding out of public schools in the state. It will decimate those schools and that is by design. That is what the disinvestment that we’re fighting right now.”
But she told the teachers in the audience to not be discouraged, “I know it doesn’t feel that way, but the country is with us.” Weingarten claimed that opponents of teachers unions are to blame for political divisiveness and said, “But extremists are still making schools a battleground, as opposed to a place that is welcoming and safe for all kids.”
In her mind, political opponents, although some may be “a well-funded,” are an “extremist minority.”
Weingarten pointed to AFT’s political successes in the 2022 midterms, “Frankly, last November, while Ron DeSantis has a big footprint and he’s running for president against former President Trump and they’re both racing to wage bigger culture wars than each other, what happened was we won in a lot of places last November.” She added, “Voters in California, and Massachusetts, and New Mexico, and even Florida, voted to pass ballot measures and funding boosts to schools.”
Meanwhile, she praised politicians from the other side of the political aisle, such as President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, and Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson. Weingarten mentioned that she has known Bowman since his days as a teacher and member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City and recently stood with him at a press conference pushing for a ban on federal standardized tests.
During a post-speech question-and-answer session, Weingarten criticized DeSantis by name. “Ron DeSantis is running for president,” she said, “He is running on an agenda that is these culture wars and that is trying to divide parents from students, trying to defund schools and trying to actually create a huge chilling effect on teachers so that when the FL powers that be dictate what they should do, they just say ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir.’”
“This kind of folks have gotten together and it’s about creating fear, disruption, chaos, and distrust and that’s how [former President Donald] Trump ran, that’s how DeSantis is running, it’s this ‘us versus them,’ Weingarten said.
She claimed DeSantis “has made teachers his enemy and he’s trying to create this division and to defund schools.” “People [will] realize what DeSantis is, is an autocrat, who doesn’t want to and doesn’t care about people,” Weingarten said, “But at the end of the day, this ought to be about elections mattering in the next two years and also ensuring that this man never becomes president.”
The longtime teachers union president then blamed gerrymandering for DeSantis’s electoral and legislative successes “over the last ten years” and lamented that “people didn’t go out to vote this year… Republicans went out to vote, but Democrats didn’t go out to vote.”
Weingarten pointed to past state battles over teachers unions, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, and that AFT is committed to teachers. “Even if we lose this round,” she said, “We are committed to winning this for students, for teachers, for communities and we will be there and turn it around.” “We’re not letting Florida die,” Weingarten confirmed to the audience, “We’re going to do everything we can.”
She screamed, as if she was directing angst at DeSantis, “How dare do you do this to schoolteachers, how dare you do this to the most vulnerable children!” What DeSantis did in Florida, she said, “is what happened in Castro’s Cuba, in Putin’s Russia, in Orban’s Hungary. It’s not what happens in America.” Weingarten asked, “I say to my conservative friends, what if it happened if it was a left-wing demagogue, what would you be saying now? This is anti-freedom of what you’re doing.”
Weingarten concluded her remarks, harping again on the theme of division, “We are in this race between fear and hope, between cruelty and decency, and frankly, the survival of our democracy very much depends on whether we win the race or the extremists win the race.”