Abortion rights, teacher shortages, community schools—all are priorities for the American Federation of Teachers in the next year.
Over the course of four days, delegates from nation’s second-largest teachers’ union discussed these and other issues at their convention here. They meet every two years to pass resolutions and elect officers. (AFT President Randi Weingarten, along with Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus and Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram, ran unopposed this year.) About 2,000 delegates attended—a mix of K-12 educators, higher education professionals, and health-care workers.
In between votes, attendees heard from first lady Jill Biden, several Democratic politicians, and labor organizers, including AFL-CIO President Elizabeth Shuler and Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls.
Here are four things to know about what happened at AFT’s convention. (The other national teachers’ union, the National Education Association, met earlier this month—read about what took place during their representative assembly, too.)
1. A task force presented a report on how to solve teacher shortages.
While teacher shortages have been a perennial issue in hard-to-fill subject areas or locales, educators are worried that they’re getting worse. Administrators report having a harder-than-normal time filling key vacancies, and the existing supply of teachers may be in jeopardy. Significant percentages of teachers have said they were likely to quit at the end of this past school year—although it’s not yet clear how many actually did—and the percentage of prospective teachers entering the profession has been steadily declining for years.
The AFT convened a task force of 25 leaders from state and local affiliates to recommend ways to solve these shortages. Their report proposes increasing salaries and benefits, reducing class sizes, reducing the amount of paperwork teachers have to complete, reducing the number of high-stakes standardized tests, and expanding the scope and reach of collective bargaining in states or districts with restrictions.
Also, the report calls for all teacher-preparation programs to make sure candidates have at least a year of clinical experience before they are the teacher of record.
“Teachers and staff are not receiving the tools and trust and time they need to do their jobs,” said Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers’ union, while presenting the report to the delegates. (Mulgrew co-chaired the task force.) “If we don’t change dramatically, we’re going to lose. We’re going to lose public education. And if we lose public education, we lose democracy.”
Delegates’ adoption of this report, Mulgrew said, is the first step to “start taking back our profession and telling those who have never stepped foot in a classroom—'Shut up! You’re just ruining everything.’”
2. Delegates passed resolutions on issues ranging from abortion to fossil fuels.
Delegates passed about 30 resolutions over the course of the convention. AFT resolutions, which are typically brought forth by local or state affiliates, are debated and finessed in committee meetings before they’re brought to the convention floor. (Not all make it out of committee.) As a result, most resolutions pass with significant support.
Delegates unanimously passed a measure, submitted by the AFT’s executive council, that committed the union to work with lawmakers to defend abortion rights, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The union will call for a “week of action for reproductive freedom” in September to mobilize members to participate in teach-ins, sit-ins, walk-ins, and other rallies and demonstrations, the measure says.
Delegates also passed a couple resolutions related to pensions and climate change. Many pension funds invest in fossil fuel industries, although some are starting to divest from such corporations, including the Teachers’ Retirement System of the City of New York.
The AFT will urge boards managing the retirement funds of members to divest assets from corporations that “extract, transport, trade, or otherwise contribute to the production of coal, oil, and gas,” one resolution says. Another calls for AFT to identify and develop investment opportunities in clean and renewable energy. And the AFT’s climate justice task forces will work to identify means to divest the union’s own assets from fossil fuel corporations, and reinvest them in workers and communities.
AFT delegates also passed resolutions that condemn legislation that restricts transgender students’ participation in sports; support legislation that gives all students free school meals; and promote career and technical education, including student internships and teacher externships.
3. AFT calls for more security in schools, despite ‘criminalization’ concerns.
Delegates also approved a resolution calling school and community violence a “national crisis.” The resolution called upon the national teachers’ union to lobby state and federal legislators to earmark federal funding for:
- school counselors and social workers with a defined case load;
- providing schools with “sufficient security personnel who will also be trained to gain the confidence of students to relate any concerns;"
- community groups that work with students to prevent violence; and
- additional security measures for any school or district that needs them.
The resolution, which was submitted by the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the New York State United Teachers, passed with at least a two-thirds voice vote, despite some dissent. One delegate said he was concerned about using federal funding to add more police officers to schools, given the potential harm to students of color. Black students are arrested at school at disproportionately high levels.
In an interview, Weingarten pointed to AFT polling that shows 71 percent of educators are in favor of having more armed security guards and police in schools. The survey, which was conducted in June, was taken by about 2,400 AFT members, including 1,340 working in P-K-12 schools.
“I think this is a community-by-community decision, and I think it’s dependent upon a lot of different factors,” she said. “But principally, when people are opposed to armed security, what they’re really saying is they are opposed to criminalizing children.”
She added: “Where I come down on this is—safety is really important, but we also need to make sure that those who safeguard us are trained well enough and understand basic decency in humanity enough [so] that they do not discriminate, and that we don’t have the criminalization of our children.”
4. AFT calls for fewer assessments, more community schools.
Delegates passed a resolution saying that the union will create a national assessment task force to develop goals for changes to federal assessment requirements, and to offer professional development for teachers on culturally responsive assessment practices.
Annual testing in grades 3-8, and once in high school, is mandated by federal law. But the resolution tells the union to ask the U.S. Department of Education to advocate for changes to the federal testing requirements and allow grade-span testing—meaning once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school—instead. The AFT has called for this change in the past to reduce the testing burden, but other education groups (including the Education Trust) have said grade-span testing comes with its own set of problems, namely a lack of objective data to see how students are learning.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, the main federal K-12 education law, has been up for reauthorization since December 2019. However, Congress is unlikely to rewrite it anytime soon.
In another resolution, the AFT committed to promoting the community school model. Community schools work with local partners and organizations to offer more wraparound supports for students, including access to food and health care. Delegates who work at community schools shared that they’ve seen increases in teacher retention and student achievement.
“Community schools are hubs that sustain communities, help rebuild and deepen relationships within and beyond the school, and make it possible for teachers to teach and for kids to just be kids,” Weingarten said in her keynote speech.
The Biden administration is awarding $68 million in grants for community schools, and has proposed $438 million in new funding to its community schools program in the fiscal 2023 budget. (In past years, the Education Department has dedicated a relatively smaller amount, ranging from $5 million in 2009 to $17.5 million in 2018, to community schools.)
The AFT says it currently supports 700 community schools across the country and wants to expand to 2,500 over the next five years.