President Joe Biden called for gun control, teacher pay raises, more funding for students with disabilities, and preschool expansions during an event to honor the 2023 State Teachers of the Year at the White House’s Rose Garden on Monday, April 24.
“Teaching should not be a life-threatening profession,” he said to the crowd of educators. “And educators should not need to be armed to feel safe in the classroom.”
The president used the event as an opportunity to showcase his education agenda ahead of his anticipated run for re-election, which he is expected to formally announce this week.
Alongside First Lady Jill Biden, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, and 2023 National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson, Biden applauded teachers for navigating a challenging educational environment and thanking them for their hard work.
“We ask so much of you, and each and every time you all step up and say, ‘yes,’” Biden said. “The impact you have on our students is profound.”
Teachers use opportunity to advocate for changes
An emphasis on respect for and the power of the teaching profession guided the tone of the event on Monday.
Peterson, who teaches high school math in Tulsa, Okla., said teachers “are fueled by the equalizing power of public education to dismantle marginalization, eliminate systemic inequities, and end generational poverty.”
“I teach because it gives me life to offer the American dream to the next generation,” she said. “Teachers, you hold our democracy.”
Biden specifically recognized Peterson during his remarks, joking about he wouldn’t be able to teach calculus as she does.
“Oh, God, do I remember calculus,” he said, making the Catholic sign of the cross. “God bless the calculus teachers, and that is no joke.”
Teachers at the event said they’d like to see raises in teacher pay to make up for high costs of living, and the increasing demands of the profession.
Schools are “losing teachers because we can’t afford to stay in the area” where they teach, Catherine Matthews, the Montana State Teacher of the Year, said in an interview after the event.
Matthews teaches special education and early childhood education at Hyalite Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont., and said she’d like to see more support for universal preschool.
Other teachers want to see more support for LGBTQ students and an end to gun violence.
“From my students, I promised them that if I talked to anybody today that was important I would say trans rights,” Danielle Charbonneau, the Massachusetts teacher of the year, who teaches English language arts at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, said in an interview after the event.
Charbonneau teaches in an alternative program embedded in the Martha’s Vineyard high school. She’d like to see policymakers figure out ways to design alternative settings so “they aren’t always pushed aside or isolated from the regular community.”
The teachers said Monday’s ceremony served as a boost of confidence for the profession, noting they feel happy to have multiple educators in the White House with Jill Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, who teaches at Georgetown University.
“I’m so inspired that people are so grateful for the work that we do,” said Konelio Cornelius Sagiao Alofaituli, the American Samoa teacher of the year who teaches social studies at Manu’a High School, in an interview after the event. “The validation is just incredible.”
Biden showcases education agenda
The president’s speech was his first major address this year focused on education. He made school safety, specifically gun control, a primary focus.
“We passed the most significant gun safety legislation in 30 years because educators now find themselves on the front lines, and gun violence is a real problem,” the president said, referencing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which passed last year following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed. “We want to do more, and I continue to call on Congress for common sense gun safety laws to protect kids and our teachers.”
That stance received applause from the educators in attendance. Since the start of 2023 there have been 14 school shootings, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker.
“Let’s end the guns now,” Charbonneau said.
Biden also criticized books bans that have been happening in districts across the country and a House Republican 2024 budget proposal that would keep funding at 2022 levels, effectively cutting funding.
“I never thought I’d be a president who is fighting against elected officials trying to ban and banning books,” Biden said. “Empty shelves don’t help kids learn very much.”
Biden’s comments on the House Republican budget proposal came in response to a plan the party’s lawmakers released last week to raise the debt ceiling ahead of a summer expiration of the nation’s borrowing authority.
“Cutting education funding is the last thing this country needs,” Biden said.
Instead, Biden said he’d like to expand funding for students with disabilities. The president’s 2024 budget proposal includes a $1.2 billion increase for funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—the federal special education law—which Congress has never fully funded. Biden’s budget still wouldn’t realize that funding level originally promised in 1975.
The president also called for support for LGBTQ students, as Republican-led legislatures across the country have passed bans on the participation of transgender student athletes on teams consistent with their gender identity.
He highlighted the administration’s recent proposed changes to Title IX that would explicitly protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and prevent schools from enacting categorical bans on transgender students from playing sports consistent with their gender identity.
Jill Biden pushed against a narrative that teachers and parents are at odds with each other. Earlier this year, House Republicans accused schools of “stonewalling” parents and passed the national Parents’ Bill of Rights that would codify in federal law parental rights to review school curriculum, be heard by school boards, and examine school budgets.
“Lately, when I turn on the TV, I see pundits and politicians talking about our profession,” said Jill Biden, who is a community college professor. “I hear them attacking our public schools, distorting the truth about what we do, and saying that parents and teachers are at odds, but that’s not what I’ve seen.”
President Biden said he still feels optimistic about America’s future, in large part because of teachers.
“God bless our nation’s teachers,” he said.