Braving the heat, thousands of educators at the NEA Representative Assembly gathered outside Florida’s Orange County Convention Center on July 5 for a Freedom to Learn rally, rising up against attempts to ban books, silence educators, and interfere with students’ right to an education.
“You are showing what it means to fight against out-of-touch politicians,” NEA President Becky Pringle told participants. “As this nation’s largest most powerful union, we will protect our democracy and preserve public education. And we will win, because we must. We will win because we know our students are depending on us to be worthy of them.”
In the past year alone, many politicians who have failed to address the educator shortage and gun violence in schools have instead banned books about Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank, attempted to erase and dehumanize the LGBTQ+ community, blocked students from learning AP African American Studies, and restricted educators’ freedom to teach and students’ freedom to learn.
For teachers in the crowd working in states where such freedoms have been restricted, the rally was a powerful, validating experience.
“I feel this is a space where I’m supported, and where I can get the knowledge and tools to move forward,” said Jorje Botello, a Florida civics teacher who also taught U.S. history for more than 20 years. “It’s hard to teach history and civics in Florida today,” he said, adding that teachers are fearful for their jobs. “One hundred percent, we feel limitations on what we can do and teach.”
National Teacher of the Year in the spotlight
“Every day, as we unlock the doors of our classrooms, we swing wide the doors of opportunity. Each time we open a book, we open a space to grow.”
That was the message Oklahoma high school math teacher and 2023 National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson delivered to her colleagues and fellow NEA RA delegates, celebrating their role in ensuring educators’ freedoms and inspiring students, and emphasizing that the fight to protect democracy must continue.
“As an Iranian-American woman, I stand acutely aware that liberty for all is no guarantee. Rather, it’s a product of a nation’s people insisting that we belong to each other. Teachers, you are the ones carrying that banner.”
Community schools movement
A panel discussion on day three of the NEA RA looked at progress and success within the community schools movement, part of an initiative spearheaded nationally by NEA and taken up by CEA at the statewide level to help establish and grow public schools that provide services and support that fit their particular neighborhood’s needs. These often include wraparound services, integrated into the fabric of the school, that provide meals, health care, mental-health counseling, and other services before, during, and after school.
NEA launched the Community Schools Institute with a $10 million investment to help communities start and grow community schools, and thanks to the union’s advocacy, the federal government now provides $70 million in federal funding to support these initiatives.
CEA successfully lobbied its own state legislature in recent years to adopt statutory language acknowledging community schools as a viable component of education reform.