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AFT’s annual convention emphasizes politics over education

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) held its annual conference in Washington, D.C., last week, featuring two main speakers: Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and AFT President Randi Weingarten.  

Cardona started his speech by mentioning that his wife Marissa is a current dues-paying member of AFT; he failed to mention that he is a former dues-paying member. 

Much of Cardona’s speech praised unionized teachers. In reference to the hot weather, he said, “I know it’s hotter than hot out there, but it’s nothing compared to the heat you’ve been taking these days.” He added, “It’s great to be with the profession that makes all other professions possible.” 

The cabinet secretary congratulated Weingarten “for her fearless leadership” and called it an “honor” to have her, the “most dangerous person in the world,” walk him onto stage. That reference is a direct quote from former CIA director Mike Pompeo, who said Weingarten is more dangerous than the leaders of China and North Korea due to teachers unions’ potential to take down the United States. 

Cardona blasted union critics for “stoking hate and distrust in an effort to burn public education to the ground.”  

“You play stupid games, you win stupid prizes,” he said. “We need public education to keep democracy alive.” 

He turned his attention to parental rights and presented his counternarrative to the grassroots movement. “We have districts where one or two ideologues armed with megaphones and rich donors are overriding school librarians and educators with decades of experience, in the name of parental rights,” said Cardona. “But it’s not parental rights; that’s not what it is,” he asserted. 

The education secretary used his speech to advocate for political policy positions, such as gun control and book “bans.” He also criticized the use of taxpayer-funded school vouchers.  

He said he believes that “a strong education system unites our country” and that teachers unions “need to create a reaction that’s even bigger than the actions attacking public schools.” Cardona added, “We need to get back on offense and reclaim the narrative about our public schools.” 

Cardona gave his own take on the alphabet, providing conference attendees a short list of ABCs for public education: “Agency,” “Better working conditions,” and “Competitive salaries.” 

Cardona also claimed that the Department of Education, under his leadership, fixed the student loan debt issue. “We fixed the dysfunctional public service loan forgiveness program,” he said. “We went from 7,000 people ever qualifying in four years to forgiving $45 billion worth of student loans for 653,000 public servants in the last two and a half years.” 

To political opponents, he warned, “You poke the bear if you threaten the great equalizer. If you’re trying to undermine an institution so vital to the survival of democracy and the future of our nation, then there’s going to be an equal and opposite reaction.” 

Weingarten agreed with much of Cardona’s speech and added similarly politically charged rhetoric.  

She compared public criticism of her leadership with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Jones because they were once labeled as a “dangerous” people due to their activism. “I am honored to be in their courageous, righteous company,” Weingarten exclaimed, then added, “That righteous company includes all of you.” 

Weingarten, like Cardona, criticized her critics as the “far-right wing” of the country. “The far-right wing started their smears,” the teachers union president said. “As extremists try to divide Americans from one another, they know that public schools unite us. As they wage culture wars in our schools, parents know we have our children’s best interest at heart.” 

She asked the convention audience, “Why do extremists demonize, distort, and demagogue public education? Why don’t they offer a single idea to strengthen public schools?” Weingarten answered and said, “The answer is pretty clear to me: because they don’t want to improve public education; they want to end it!” 

The longtime teachers union president singled out her most vocal critics, such as education activist Christopher Rufo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and parental rights group Moms for Liberty. She said that these “fearmongers” are “determined, well-funded, and yes, ruthless.”  

Weingarten also criticized Congress for calling her to testify about her and AFT’s role in school closures during the pandemic. “It was a whole hearing in my name,” she claimed. “They wanted to place blame on school closures during the pandemic. They wanted to make teachers, teachers unions, and me their political punching bag.” 

She pivoted to praise AFT and teachers unions, “because in our union, in our democracy, we can achieve things together that are impossible alone. That’s the essence of unionism,” she said.  

Her major announcement at the conference was AFT’s launch of a $5 billion “Real Solutions for Kids and Communities” campaign to “address learning loss” from the pandemic. “Public education must be supported, not stripped,” she said. 

Weingarten encouraged union members to be politically active. “We know how to run political campaigns,” the teachers union president proclaimed. “Let’s put that same energy and expertise into this campaign to win these solutions for our kids, for educators like you, for our public schools and our democracy.” 

She concluded, “Because without public schooling, without the pluralism it creates, without the opportunity it provides, there will be no freedom in America, and there will be no broad-based multiracial democracy.”

Spencer Irvine

Spencer Irvine is Senior Writer & Researcher at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Spencer previously worked in state government, in communications for a non-profit advocacy organization, and held various administrative and communications roles at a media analysis organization. He has a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Brigham Young University. He lives in Arizona with his wife, is an avid history buff and enjoys touring historic sites.