The prevailing message from speakers at the American Federation of Teachers’ convention: U.S. democracy is in trouble, and educators must keep fighting for change—beginning with the looming midterm elections.
On Friday, first lady Jill Biden, U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, both Democrats from Massachusetts, spoke to more than 2,000 union delegates gathered here, urging them to organize, canvass, and vote in the upcoming midterm elections. Labor organizers—including AFL-CIO President Elizabeth Shuler, Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls, and those from Starbucks Workers United—also addressed the crowd, promoting union solidarity.
“We have to come together as AFT always has and demand that we need to be heard,” Biden said. “Underestimate the power of this coalition at your own risk.”
The midterms are in four months, and Democrats are expected to lose control of the U.S. House of Representatives and are fighting hard to keep control of the Senate. The national teachers’ unions, which traditionally favor the Democratic Party, are urging their members to donate to and campaign for politicians who support education and labor.
“We must vote in November as if our lives depend upon it, because they do,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in her keynote speech on Thursday. “You held our institutions together during the pandemic. ... Now we need to hold our democracy together.”
She continued: “I know we are tired. I know we are exhausted. But if we don’t do it, it ain’t gonna happen.”
It’s time to use our ‘teacher voice,’ Biden said
Biden gave a 10-minute address to the crowd of educators and other union delegates, whom she called her family. The first lady has been an educator for almost four decades and now teaches English at a community college in northern Virginia—she just signed her contract to teach in the fall semester, she told delegates. She is a member of the National Education Association, but Weingarten bestowed “honorary membership of the AFT” on her as well.
“We believe that there is something profoundly optimistic about education,” Biden said. “To answer this call of service is, in itself, an act of hope. And we need that hope now more than ever.”
Teaching has become harder than ever, Biden acknowledged. (EdWeek Research Center survey data shows that teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time low as educators grapple with the stress of the pandemic and staff shortages.)
Even so, teachers are the ones making sure they have snacks for their students who are hungry, preparing their class for active-shooter drills, and telling children that change is possible, Biden said. And they’re doing all of that despite public attacks on teachers, she said.
“There is so much weight on all of you, but you carry it,” she said.
The first lady touted her husband’s accomplishments over the past nearly two years, including the $122 billion in COVID-19 relief aid for schools and the recent signing of bipartisan gun legislation, which contains measures to limit who can access firearms and additional funding for mental health support and more security in schools.
But there’s still much more to do, Biden said, including banning AR-15 assault-style weapons, protecting abortion rights, making community college free, and reducing the cost of child care. Teachers, she said, can help move these goals forward.
“Yes, we need to vote in races at every single level, and we need to remember that voting is the bare minimum,” she said. “We have to get involved in the local governments that decide how cities plan their budgets and protect their students. We have to stand up for justice and equity. All of us have a teacher voice for when things go off the rails, and now is the time to use it.”
Student loan debt should be canceled, Warren says
Warren dedicated the majority of her speech to calling for the cancellation of student loan debt, which she said is a “racial justice issue and a gender justice issue.”
Women—who make up most of the teaching profession—hold almost two-thirds of the country’s student loan debt, with Black women disproportionately burdened. The NEA has found that Black educators have significantly more student debt than their white peers—$68,000 compared to $54,300, on average.
Warren pointed to another statistic from the NEA—65 percent of teachers under the age of 35 have taken out loans.
“Millions of teachers are drowning in student loan debt,” she said. “We need student loan debt relief, and we need it now. This is a fight, and teachers are fighters.”
For more than a year, Warren has been calling on President Joe Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt. The president is reportedly going to announce his decision on debt forgiveness soon. The Washington Post reported in May that at that time his administration was planning to forgive up to $10,000 in student debt per borrower.
In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Education has been attempting to overhaul the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which is meant to forgive the debt of public service workers after they make 120 monthly, on-time payments toward their loan. But the program was riddled with red tape, and the vast majority of applications for forgiveness were denied.
Last October, the Biden administration announced it would temporarily waive many requirements retroactively, so that more people could qualify. As of early May, more than 127,000 borrowers have qualified for forgiveness under these changes, according to the department.
Borrowers who have not yet applied for public service loan forgiveness have to do so before Oct. 31 to benefit from these changes. Advocacy groups and labor unions, including the NEA and AFT, have called on the administration to extend the changes past October so more people can benefit.
During the convention, delegates are expected to consider a resolution calling for the president to sign an executive order to cancel all federal student debt before Aug. 1, when the pause on federal student loan payments that’s been in place since March 2020 is set to expire. This resolution was submitted by the Chicago Teachers Union.
Delegates are also poised to consider resolutions expressing solidarity with Ukraine, support for community schools, and a defense against anti-LGBTQ legislation.