President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden thanked teachers for their work throughout the pandemic and promised to push for more investments in public education on Friday at the nation’s largest teachers’ union’s virtual convention.
The Bidens addressed thousands of delegates at the National Education Association’s annual representative assembly, which is taking place this week. Delegates have been voting on measures that will determine many of NEA’s priorities for the next year. So far, delegates have already passed a measure to establish a task force that will explore the role of school police officers.
“The NEA is one of America’s indispensable organizations. I’m not just saying that because the first lady is a member,” the president said. The first lady, who holds a doctorate degree in education, teaches English at a community college in Virginia.
Biden said he had a firsthand look at what teachers experienced this school year, as Jill Biden learned to teach remotely, spending hours retrofitting her lesson plans. It gave him a new appreciation of the work teachers did, he said.
“You are professionals—all of you,” Biden said. “All of us have a responsibility to make sure you have what you need to educate our children safely, equitable, and well.”
During Biden’s presidential campaign, he promised to make major investments in education funding, which would include teacher pay raises. Last year at the NEA’s representative assembly, he told educators he would be the most “teacher-centric” president in history and promised to raise their salaries. The NEA, along with the other national teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed Biden over Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary, as well as supported him in the general election.
So far, Biden has proposed a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that would provide “universal, high-quality” preschool to all 3- and 4-year olds, pay for two years of free community college for all Americans, and invest $9 billion to train and diversify teachers through federal scholarships and pipeline programs.
Biden has also introduced a $2 trillion infrastructure package that would provide $100 billion for new school construction and upgrades to existing buildings and $45 billion to replace lead pipes around the country, which the White House estimates would reduce lead exposure in 400,000 schools and child-care facilities.
And Biden’s budget proposal would more than double funding for Title I, the federal grant program for educating disadvantaged students. The $20 billion in new funding could be used to raise teacher salaries and address inequities in school funding.
“Your union and teachers’ protests across the country made it clear you deserve more than praise,” Biden told NEA delegates, referencing the wave of teacher strikes, walkouts, and large-scale protests that swept the country in 2018 and 2019. “You deserve a raise, not just praise. Every parent in this country who spent the last year helping educate their children at home understands you deserve a raise.”
Biden’s proposals, however, face resistance from Congress, which is weighing several costly spending plans from the Biden administration. GOP members have been more receptive to spending money on bridges and roads than so-called ‘soft infrastructure’ proposals like education and child care.
Congress already passed the American Rescue Plan, which provided nearly $130 billion in COVID-19 aid to K-12 schools.
Teachers are critical to the country’s success, Biden says
Biden credited his own success to his teachers, who he said encouraged him despite his stutter.
“I think what you all underestimate—beyond the teaching of reading, writing, adding, subtracting, you give so many kids confidence,” he said. “You let them believe in themselves. ... I really don’t think you understand just how important you are.”
And in Jill Biden’s speech, she praised teachers’ willingness to pivot and adapt their instruction as schools shut down due to the coronavirus and then work to safely reopen buildings. (Teachers’ unions have been criticized this past school year for pushing for a conservative approach to getting kids back into classrooms, and in some areas, blocking reopening plans.)
“America’s students and families faced a crisis like never before. They needed champions like never before. And they found their champions in you,” Jill Biden said.
Said Joe Biden: “I think you’re the single most important component of America’s future, so don’t give up on yourselves—and I know you won’t—don’t give up on these kids.”