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Secretary Cardona Defends Public Education in Speech to American Federation of Teachers

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How we doing AFT?! We good? Full of energy? I am really thrilled to be here. In preparation, I told my wife, hey I am going to be speaking at the AFT Teach conference in DC and she said, you better. She’s a paying AFT member herself. Shout out to Marissa.

It’s great to have so many outstanding educators in DC. To be honest, we could use a few more teachers to address some of the misbehavior in this town. I know it’s hotter than hot out there. But it’s nothing compared to the heat you’ve been taking these days.

It has been the highlight of my month to spend time with our nation’s teachers. I’ve been with school counselors in Atlanta. I was with educators in Orlando. CTE instructors in Augusta.

It’s great to be with the profession that makes all other professions possible. Let em’ know. Let em’ know. But as I said a couple weeks ago in Orlando, we’ve witnessed an intentional toxic effort to disrespect teachers, to divide families, and to demonize students who are different.

So let me start by saying something that you don’t hear often enough. Thank you! Thank you. Gracias. Thank you for going above and beyond to be there for ALL your students. As I always say, all means all!

Thank you for showing up at a time when their needs have never been greater and the noise surrounding you has never been louder. Thank you for handing out 1.5 million books during a when others are focused on banning them. Thank you for staying high when others go low!

I also want to thank President Randi Weingarten for her fearless leadership. Thank you, Randi! No one fights harder for students and educators than you. And, by the way, what an honor it is to be walked onto the stage by the “most dangerous person in world.”

Dangerous for what? For wanting beautiful and safe schools? For wanting higher literacy rates? For championing full-service community schools? If you fear a strong woman, you are picking on the wrong profession. Education is FULL of strong women!

So let me ask you, what’s more dangerous? Fighting for the health and wellbeing of students, or blocking lifesaving gun safety laws that could keep children and educators safe?

What’s more dangerous? Educators working to create inclusive and welcoming schools, or politicians demonizing LGTBQ kids who already have it tough enough?

What’s more dangerous? Fighting for better conditions and fair compensation for teachers, or stoking hate and distrust in an effort to burn public education to the ground?

You know, these attacks on education remind me of something I used to tell my kids. One of my favorite go-to lines as a parent. But before I tell you the line that I am talking about, I want to ask you to see if you know it. Please don’t worry, it’s not a standardized test! You’re not going to be rated, I am not going to give you anything to fill in. Alright.

Who here knows Newton’s third law? Any science teachers in the house? I guarantee you have heard it: for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

Let that sink in for a second. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. As I parent, I used to use it all the time. If one of my kids got in trouble, they’d have a consequence. Then they’d argue that it isn’t fair. That’s when I come in with the line, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Then, you know how it is, you get the eye rolls and the sucking of the teeth.

For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. In the Cardona house, it’s sort of Papi’s version of, “you mess around, you’re gonna find out.”

We see a lot of efforts to mess around with public education today. Look at the statewide school voucher programs, like we’ve seen in Indiana and Arizona. When you look closer, you find its mainly wealthier families getting their private school tuition bills paid, while schools in communities with the greatest needs have 95 degree classrooms and substitute teachers virtually in every class0. For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

Or look at what House Republicans are pushing: a budget that would kick 220,000 teachers out of our nation’s schools! 80% cut in Title 1. They want to claw back the American Rescue Plan dollars, which not one of them voted for. But they don’t mind showing up in nice suits when there is a ribbon cutting! For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction – their cuts would destroy public schools.

Or take these so-called anti-woke laws, which censor teachers and librarians and strip them of their agency, trying to rewrite history and promote exclusion and bigotry. Look, we’ve already had one insurrection, we don’t need any more!

We need public education to keep democracy alive! That’s what we do.

Some of these politicians attacking public education—they’re gonna learn. You play stupid games—you win stupid prizes! For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Colleagues, we have districts where one or two ideologues armed with megaphones and rich donors are overriding school librarians and educators with decades of experience in the name of parental rights.

But it’s not parental rights, that’s not what this is. These are extremists working to whitewash history and censor educators, at the expense of our students!

You want parents’ rights? How about the parents’ right to have their child attend a school where they feel welcome the way God made them?

How about the parents’ rights to know their kids won’t be gunned down with an assault weapon in the classroom or while walking to school? My message to them: stop protecting AR 15s more than you are protecting our students! Thank you. And don’t get me started on wanting teachers to carry guns if they don’t even trust you to pick out books. Stop talking.

How about the parents’ right to have a well-resourced neighborhood school instead of seeing their tax dollars go to vouchers?

How about the parents’ right to make sure their children have fully-staffed schools with highly-qualified teachers, not a rotating cast of substitute teachers, because their state has no problem with their teachers making less than $40K a year?

How about the parents’ right to have their children learn the true history of our country, including the Black experience, even if it means teaching about the parts of our history we’re not proud of. I am very proud of our Vice President who is on her way to Jacksonville, Florida now to address the ridiculous passage of some of the curricular expectations in Florida. We can teach the tragedies and the triumphs of American history and still instill pride in our country!

As a parent, teacher, and former principal I know, strong and productive relationships between teachers and parents are vital to student success. This fabricated attempt to divide our schools and families is not going to work. In fact, we know schools unite families and neighborhoods and we are going to make sure that a strong education system unites our country. No matter what race, what faith, what income level, or political leaning, nothing unites us more than our shared hopes for our children.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And those working to divide our schools, there’s a particular reaction they want. These shenanigans, these culture wars, combined with decades of financial neglect, seek to stoke division and sow distrust in the very institution of public education.

At least four presidential candidates are talking about eliminating the Department of Education. Even the last secretary of education is using her millions to fund privatizing our schools.

But we are not going to let that happen. We are not going to let that happen. Look, this isn’t about woke or anti-woke. This is about our need to WAKE UP.

We need to create a reaction that’s even bigger than these actions attacking public schools. We need to get back on offense and reclaim the narrative about our public schools.

Public education is the foundation of opportunity in America. It is and it has been the great equalizer. Public schools and public state colleges are the reason this Puerto Rican, first-generation college kid from an economically depressed community can now advise the President of the United States!

Public education gives our democracy a fighting chance! At the Department of Education, we’re committed to lifting you and the teaching profession. Because we don’t have enough acronyms in education, I came up with the ABCs of teaching.

“A” stands for Agency. Let’s treat educators like the professionals they are. You know what you’re doing. You just need the agency to get it done. Educators deserve a seat at the decision-making table because they know what’s best for their students. Second to parents, teachers know best what the students’ needs are.

“B” is for Better Working Conditions. Better working conditions means giving you enough planning time to learn collaboratively, just like every other profession.

It means high quality professional development during work hours … right?! During work hours so you don’t have to choose between professional growth or seeing your family. And it also means supporting learning by hiring more counselors and mental health professionals and creating wraparound supports for students!

We’re focusing on this in the Biden-Harris administration. Investing $2 billion to train and hire mental health professionals and help schools build positive school cultures, which the evidence shows improves learning!

I applaud the AFT for fighting for full-service community schools, because they work!

Schools are already the center of communities. Full-service community schools embrace that. They are one-stop shops for students and families to access health care, summer and afterschool programs, and adult education. And they work! Just like Randi showed me when we went to White Plains, New York, and I’ve seen it in everywhere from Allentown, PA to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In January, President Biden secured a spending bill that increases community school funding from $75 to $150 million. And we are not going to stop fighting. Our vision is to double the number of community schools across America because we know they work!

And last, but not least, we have the letter “C” and that stands for Competitive Salaries. Teachers earn 24% less than other college graduates. Pay our teachers what they deserve! As of last school year, 35 states in our country started their teachers with a salary of less than $45,000. 17 states started their teachers with a salary below $40,000. Teachers in many places qualify for state aid.

Let’s stop normalizing teachers having to bartend and drive Uber to make ends meet. If we want to raise the bar and lead the world, let’s ensure teacher pay matches the essential work they do. Weren’t we calling them essential when the last guy shut down our schools?

And look, let me tell you, you can lift teacher salaries without tying it to voucher programs. Maryland and Idaho have shown us you don’t have to have money for vouchers and then have higher teacher salaries just so they’re happy while you’re trying to push voucher programs.

Teachers, I’m tired of the normalized martyrdom. Yes, you can advocate for a livable wage and still be student centered. In fact, fighting for competitive salaries will ensure that our schools stay healthy. You shouldn’t feel guilty standing up for decent wages.

Don’t mistake our selflessness with submission! When we invest in the profession, we invest in our students – and we invest in our nation.

As Secretary of Education, from Day One I’ve worked to make sure we’re not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.

In addition to the $30 billion dollars dedicated to staffing with the American Rescue Plan, this year we’re investing $2.7 billion in teacher development, recruitment and retention programs. And that includes funding to train more teachers of color and multilingual educators.

We all need to work to make sure – we all need to work to make sure that our workforce reflects the beautiful diversity of the students we serve. Y sí, ya es tiempo de aprender otro idioma en los Estados Unidos.

We also fixed the dysfunctional Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. I want to say thank you to AFT for helping so many educators apply. We went – at the federal level – we went from 7,000 people ever qualifying for PSLF in four years, to forgiving $45 billion worth in student loans for 653,000 public servants in the last two and a half years.

And I was very proud to announce last week, we announced another $39 billion in debt relief for 800,000 borrowers nationwide. As DJ Khalid would say, another one! As an administration, the Biden-Harris team is up to $113 billion in debt relief– and we’re just warming up!

Our Raise the Bar: Lead the World plan focuses on not only recovering academically, but reimagining a better system. It focuses on laying a foundation of mental health supports for students and for educators. It focuses on eliminating the teacher shortage, on giving students a chance on a global stage through multilingualism and college and career pathways! While others try to destroy public education, we have a plan forward. Check it out at ed.gov for more information.

I’m proud to be here because so many AFT members are behind what’s working in education.

You’ve spent many years Reclaiming the Promise. Now, together, let’s Reclaim the Narrative.

In each one of your schools, magic happens daily. Whether it’s helping a kid see the potential they have when they didn’t believe in themselves; AFT members holding panels on how to increase family engagement and organize for community schools; your focus on culturally responsive teaching and civil discourse; or now your focus on addressing loneliness by focusing on the impacts of social media, YOU are making a difference!

We cannot be afraid to speak out. We cannot be silent in the face of these corrosive attacks on education. It’s our turn to drive the action. It’s our turn to reclaim the narrative. It’s our turn to turn up the heat! This is our moment and our kids are watching!

We need to make clear, man, that if you poke the bear, if you threaten the great equalizer, if you undermine an institution so vital to the survival of democracy and the future of our nation, then there’s going to be an equal and opposite reaction!

My friends, we’re going to have to come in stronger, we’re going to have to get louder. We’re going to have to work harder, we’re going to have to serve families better. And together we are going to have to raise the bar higher!



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