In powerful speeches heard by thousands of educators at the NEA Representative Assembly on July 4, the nation’s top public education advocates pledged their continued support for teachers.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona led by sharing how his own life’s trajectory was shaped by a Meriden teacher. After she saw a racial-justice-themed mural he was painting, his high school art teacher suggested he display it in the school cafeteria. He did, and his work was featured in the local newspaper.
“That lifted me up,” Cardona recalled.
Later, that same teacher tapped him on the shoulder and told him that he, too, could be an educator—an idea that put him on the path to becoming one.
“Ms. Ransom saw something in me that I did not even see, and when I look out at this room, I don’t just think of it as a room of 6,000 incredible people,” Cardona said. “You represent tens of millions of taps on the shoulder. You change lives!”
Emphasizing that the country owes its educators a debt of gratitude and respect for changing as well as saving lives, Cardona criticized what he called “a culture of toxic disrespect” aimed at public education.
“That disrespect comes from so-called leaders that complain about public education but sleep well at night knowing their teachers are making less than $40,000 a year. It comes from those who want to privatize education and starve public schools of the resources they need, and from those seeking to divide our nation by politicizing equity and inclusion. There is a toxic disrespect from demagogues who attack the safety and belonging of LGBTQI+ students and students of color, banning books and whitewashing our history. There’s a toxic disrespect from those who want to perpetuate privilege by standing against affirmative action and from those who have gotten millions in debt relief but throw a tantrum when we try to give teachers $10,000.” Sadly, he added, “There is even toxicity creeping in from those who would rather ban books than assault weapons.”
Early this morning, the NEA Representative Assembly kicked off with a Freedom to Learn rally to call attention to the issue of banned books.
“I keep hearing talk about a teacher shortage issue,” said Cardona. “ are we going to talk about the national teacher respect issue?” he asked. “Better yet … let’s see action.”
Cardona spelled out what he called the ABCs of education: A for agency, where educator voices are woven into the school’s work; B for better working conditions, where we are not normalizing schools built for the last century; and C for competitive salaries.
“Let’s pay teachers what they deserve! When we invest in the profession, we invest in our students, and we invest in our nation,” he said.
After his speech, Cardona met with NEA delegates about actions to raise educator pay, move from standardized testing to instruction-driven assessment, and create better working conditions.
Also addressing NEA’s Representative Assembly, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden reaffirmed their commitment to listening to educators and supporting public schools nationwide.
“Educators have champions in the White House,” President Biden assured nearly 6,000 delegates in attendance, and thousands more watching the livestream across the nation. “I know the last three years have been so difficult—we asked so much of you. I want you to know I see you, we see you, and we thank you.”
He added, “Our job is to make sure you have what you need to do what you do best. That’s why through the American Rescue Plan we delivered critical support for schools, including funding for after school programs, summer programs, hiring more teachers, counselors, and school psychologists.”
Not only did the Biden administration follow through on the American Rescue Plan, the largest-ever investment in public schools, but they also made sure educators and their unions were included in local decisions regarding how that $170 billion would be spent.
Several NEA RA delegates were invited by NEA President Becky Pringle to share their stories about how the massive infusion of resources has made a profound difference in their professional and personal lives in areas such as tackling the educator shortage, diversifying the profession, addressing the mental health crisis and gun violence, and receiving relief from crushing student loan debt.
Chastity Baccus, a member of the South Carolina Education Association and president of the York County Education Association, described how President Biden’s commitment to fixing Public Service Loan Forgiveness changed her life. The hardworking 22-year veteran elementary educator, who has two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., was carrying nearly $130,000 of student loan debt.
“As we all know, our profession is one that is severely underpaid, and to advance, we must continue our education, which usually means incurring more debt,” Baccus said. But that debt was forgiven when the Biden administration jumpstarted the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, because Baccus had met all of the program requirements. Thousands of other educators are among the 615,000 public servants whose student debt was cancelled.
“We have never had stronger partners in the White House than President Biden and our NEA member Dr. Jill Biden,” said Pringle. “They listened to us, and they worked since day one to not only support public education in this country, but to support the people who have dedicated their lives to educating those students.”
NEA delegates voted to endorse Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for the 2024 presidential election.
Delegates also re-elected NEA President Becky Pringle, Vice President Princess Moss, and Secretary-Treasurer Noel Candelaria.